EAST WINDSOR — The U.S. Department of Interior has issued one of two approvals needed for the construction of a Connecticut casino proposed by two federally recognized Native American tribes hoping to compete with a new Massachusetts casino.
The agency published official notice Friday that it approved amendments to a revenue-sharing agreement between the Mohegan tribe and the state of Connecticut. A project spokesman has said the second approval is expected soon on amendments to a similar agreement between the state and Mashantucket Pequots.
The two tribes operate the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos in southeastern Connecticut, and they give the state 25 percent of their slot machine revenue under the agreements.
The two approvals by the Interior Department are needed under legislation approved last year by state lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that gave the tribes the initial go-ahead for the planned casino in East Windsor.
The new casino would be about 15 miles from an MGM Resorts casino scheduled to open this summer in Springfield, Massachusetts. The tribes say the East Windsor project is needed to protect jobs at their casinos and compete with the Springfield venue.
MGM Resorts has been fighting the East Windsor proposal, calling the state legislation an “unconstitutional no-bid scheme.” It said in a statement that it is considering challenging the law in court.
The company, which also is proposing a casino in Bridgeport, criticized the Interior Department’s approval and said it planned to investigate how the decision was made.
“We can find no legal justification for the Interior Department’s unprecedented action,” the statement said. “In an effort to shed light on these serious legal questions, MGM will file a Freedom of Information Act request to uncover the process and inputs that led to today’s notice.“
The Interior Department has been under fire by Connecticut’s congressional delegation for a long delay in approving the amendments to the tribes’ agreement with the state. The department’s inspector general, at the federal lawmakers’ request, is investigating the agency’s handling of the tribes’ applications.
The congressional delegation has questioned whether the agency delayed action on the tribes’ applications because of lobbying by MGM.
The department’s notice on Friday said that because it did not act on the Mohegan tribe’s application within 45 days, it is considered to have been approved.
“As the Inspector General continues its investigation, that timing will no doubt become a new focus,” said a statement by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Reps. John Larson and Joe Courtney, all Connecticut Democrats.
Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribe’s joint casino proposal, called the Interior Department’s approval “the latest step in our overall goal to preserve thousands of good paying jobs and millions in state tax revenue.”