Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal investigation

Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal investigation
© Greg Nash

The Interior Department is reversing course on an initial decision to ban two Native American tribes from building a casino, an issue at the core of an ethics investigation into former Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Future of controversial international hunting council up in the air Overnight Energy: Advisory panel pushes park service to privatize campgrounds | Dems urge Perry to keep lightbulb efficiency rules | Marshall Islands declares national climate crisis MORE.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is now granting the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes the right to build an off-reservation casino in Connecticut, a complete flip from a previous decision by Zinke in September 2017 to deny the permits.

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The tribes later sued Interior over the call, arguing that political pressure from Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, which has lobbied heavily against the project, was responsible for Zinke’s decision.

Last month, a federal judge revived the tribes' lawsuit against Zinke's call.

The new ruling, to be announced in the Federal Register Monday, essentially nullifies that suit.

According to the Federal Register notice, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is accepting amendments submitted by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe in August 2017 and granting the operation of gaming facility. Tara Sweeny, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, signed off on the decision March 15.

Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said he was thankful for the change.

“Today is a great day for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the State of Connecticut, especially given our 400-year history together,” Butler said in a statement to Politico. “Now that the approval of our Amendment is secured and our exclusivity agreement with the State of Connecticut is reaffirmed, we will move forward with construction on Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor and preserve much needed jobs and revenue.”

Interior’s initial controversial ruling remains at the heart of a reportedly ongoing Justice Department criminal investigation into Zinke. A grand jury met in February to consider evidence that Zinke lied to federal investigators about his involvement in blocking the tribes from opening their casino, according to The Washington Post.

Zinke has denied the allegations, and no ruling has been announced.

Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.