New Casino Despite Legal ProblemsPublished August 28, 2003 by OCR Editor
A new tribal-owned casino is set to open today in downtown Kansas City, Kan., across the street from City Hall, despite questions about the casino's legality.
State officials, protective of the casino-based economies built by Kansas' four indigenous tribes since 1996, have sued in federal court seeking to overturn a U.S. Interior Department decision earlier this year that granted the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma de facto reservation status for its tiny plot of downtown real estate.
That handful of acres, purchased in 1996, is next to the tribe's historic Huron Cemetery burial grounds, established in the 1840s. The tribe has sought to develop a casino in that area since federal law first allowed gambling on reservation land in 1989. Last year the tribe moved several mobile building units onto the site.
Tribal officials made no public announcement about the opening, and no tribal officer responded Wednesday to interview requests. One tribal spokesman referred callers to the tribe's Oklahoma lawyer - who also did not return a call.
Penny Coleman, acting general counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates tribal casinos nationwide, would not comment Wednesday on whether the tribe had obtained all the federal approvals it needed to properly open its doors to the public.
Among other things, Coleman said, the tribe must submit its gambling operations and internal control plans and policies for approval, along with the names of gaming employees and managers for personal background and criminal history investigations. The tribe began posting wanted ads since two weeks ago.
"If they are going to open, we will be looking at whether these are Indian lands over which the tribe has jurisdiction," said Coleman. "And we will be providing the necessary oversight to ensure the tribe is complying with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act." If it is not, Coleman said, the commission has authority to issue notices of violation, orders of closure and impose civil fines and assessments for substantial violations.
The U.S. Department of the Interior ruled earlier this year, in effect, that the tribe's downtown land was eligible for federally licensed Class II gambling activities -- a status that does not require further approvals by state or local governments. Class II Indian gambling includes bingo, "pull tab" games and a variety of electronic pull tab devices that look and play like slot machines. Class III gambling permits traditional slots and table games like blackjack and dice games. The tribe for years has used the threat of opening a downtown Class II casino as leverage to force approval of its preferred plan for a Class III casino and resort hotel near Kansas Speedway.
That project, however, is dependent on state and congressional approval in exchange for the tribe's dismissal of a class-action lawsuit that claims historic land rights to nearly 2,000 acres in the Fairfax Industrial District in Kansas City, Kan., including the site of the General Motors auto assembly plant. The tribe has acknowledged that the Fairfax land claim was filed as further leverage for its speedway casino, but the Kansas Legislature earlier this year refused to approve the deal.
While the city and the tribe have a casino development agreement in place for the speedway site, they are bitter foes in court over the Fairfax land issue. The city is not a party to the state's lawsuit against the tribe, but Walker said officials were watching with great interest. He said that case eventually would decide whether the reservation land status decision by Interior was proper.
Until there is a ruling, Walker said, the state's legal action "is probably not going to stop them from operating, at least for a foreseeable period of time."