House Panel shows support for Elizabeth Warren-backed bill, clears path for tribal casino

July 25, 2018

A Massachusetts tribe received a warm welcome Tuesday at a House subcommittee hearing on a bill with implications for a $1 billion casino resort, an embattled Malaysian investment firm, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s potential 2020 presidential bid.

Neither of the latter two topics came up at the hearing. Instead, Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell recounted the story of how his forebears greeted the Pilgrims as he urged the panel to reestablish 320 acres in southeastern Massachusetts as reservation land.

“Our ancestors welcomed the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and helped save them from starvation,” Mr. Cromwell told the panel. “Our relationship with the new Americans who settled around us is one of oldest relationships in the United States.”

His plea met with support from Republicans and Democrats on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, including ranking Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat, who said the tribe had been “rendered landless wrongfully and by no fault of their own.”

“This bill is critical to the rights and the benefits of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in my district,” said Rep. William Keating, Massachusetts Democrat, the bill’s House sponsor. “It’s a tribe known as the people of the first light who were an integral part of our country’s history and their assistance to the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth.”

Despite its lineage, the Mashpee weren’t recognized as a federal tribe until 2007, and therein lies the problem.

Two years ago, a federal judge overruled the Interior Department’s decision to take the acreage into trust on behalf of the tribe as a reservation, citing a 2009 Supreme Court case that forbids such status for any tribe recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934.

The 2016 ruling forced the tribe to suspend plans for the $1 billion First Light Casino and Resort on 150 acres in Taunton, bankrolled by the Malaysia-based Genting Group.

That’s where Ms. Warren comes in. Despite her previous opposition to gambling, she sponsored the Senate bill, coming to the tribe’s rescue as she seeks to deflect attention from her unproven claims of Cherokee ancestry by aligning herself with American Indian causes.

Her stance has put her at odds with a group of East Taunton citizens who filed the successful lawsuit challenging the tribe’s recognition as well as the nearby city of Brockton, which would be prevented from building its own casino if the tribal project goes through.

On the other side is the town of Mashpee, where officials have enthusiastically backed the tribal casino, saying it would be “tremendously beneficial” to the entire region.

“Not only is passing the Act the right thing to do considering the Tribe’s long-lasting ties to Taunton that I grew up learning about, and the surrounding area going back thousands of years, and the fact that it was the Wampanoag that made the settlement of this state possible because of the Tribe’s hospitality it’s the right thing to do for the city economically,” said Mashpee Mayor Thomas C. Hoye Jr. in a statement.

Perhaps nobody wants the Mashpee casino more than Genting, the investment firm that has sunk a reported $400 million into the project and could lose it all unless the Mashpee reservation is reaffirmed.

Genting has been tied in media reports to 1MDB, the state investment fund at the center of the corruption probe involving former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was arrested earlier this month for his role in the alleged multi-billion-dollar fraud scheme.

The Massachusetts delegation introduced the legislation in part over frustration with the Interior Department, which has reviewed the judge’s decision for two years without coming to any conclusions about whether the land may be taken into trust another way.

“Our tribe is deeply concerned about the refusal to defend Interior’s decision, and we are fearful that the Department of Interior will move to take land out of trust and disestablish out reservation,” said Mr. Cromwell. “This would be first time since the termination order that the department has acted to disestablish an Indian reservation.”

Acting Bureau of Indian Affairs deputy bureau director Darryl LaCounte testified at the hearing that he didn’t know when the review would be completed, but that he would get back to the subcommittee.

Asked by Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, if the Interior Department supported the bill, Mr. LaCounte said, “I am prepared to take no position on the bill today.”

Responded Mr. Young: “What I would suggest respectfully as a co-sponsor of the bill is that you consider that you support the bill. I think it’d be a good idea. It’s a good piece of legislation.”

Among those in the audience at Tuesday’s hearing was Michelle Littlefield, one of 25 East Taunton plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit, who said she had put in a request to speak but didn’t hear back from the subcommittee.

“They only got to hear one side because they only heard from the tribe,” she said.

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