Casino Battle Rages in Congress

By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

An unusual effort by several powerful congressmen to clear the way for two Indian casinos in Michigan is fueling a fierce multimillion-dollar lobbying battle of a scale not seen since the fall of Jack Abramoff.

More than a dozen lobbying firms have joined the fray on both sides, representing Indian tribes, well-connected Michigan developers and the Las Vegas-based gambling company MGM Mirage. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions have flowed to members of Congress considering bills that would allow the tribes to build casinos in populated areas away from their reservations. The bills pit senior Democrats against one another -- among them three House committee chairmen, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Yesterday, legislation that would allow the casinos sailed through the House Natural Resources Committee, clearing a hurdle that portends only more furious advocacy.

"It'll be a real lobbying effort on both sides," predicted Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), a bill supporter and co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus. "Whenever you combine gaming and money to be made, you find a lot of people interested who were never interested in Indians before."

The legislation would settle century-old land claims lodged by the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe. Land swaps would give the tribes properties desirable as casino locales, one near Detroit, the other in Port Huron, on the Canadian border. State and local governments would gain a share of the revenues.

The tribes and their development partners argue that the casinos would bring thousands of jobs to a state battered by foreclosures and auto industry layoffs. Opponents say the legislation amounts to a precedent-setting backdoor way for tribes to build casinos on land outside their reservations. The legislation circumvents the Interior Department, which opposes it.

The key House backer of the tribes' bid is Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He is squared off against other powerful Michigan Democrats, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who say the casinos will glut the already saturated Detroit area gambling market. There are three commercial casinos in Detroit and 17 others around the state owned by tribes.

"Much of the opposition is based purely on greed," Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) argued in a committee hearing on the casinos last week. "Now that the city of Detroit has theirs, they don't want anyone else to have one."

The two sides have accused one another of the sort of tactics Abramoff's lobbying team made famous, including creating front groups to gin up anti-gambling sentiment. Opponents charge that the tribes' legal position rests on a sham land purchase secretly engineered by one of the casino developers.

Michael Malik, developer of one of the proposed casinos, is a business partner of Marian Ilitch, whose family owns a casino, hockey's Detroit Red Wings and baseball's Detroit Tigers. Malik, Ilitch and their family members have given $393,000 to members of Congress in the past two election cycles. On the other side, MGM Mirage is the biggest contributor to members of Congress, giving $1.4 million in the past two cycles. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe, which operates a casino and sees the legislation as a threat to its business, has given $394,000.

At last week's hearing on the bills for the two tribes, Dingell insisted that the legislation is not about off-reservation gambling, but about a legitimate land claim.

But Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) said, "Make no mistake -- these bills are Indian gaming bills and other tribes will ask for the same." Yesterday her colleague Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) saw his amendment to strip the bills of their gambling provisions go down to resounding defeat. "Dingell is very powerful," Heller said afterward.

Heller, Reid and other Nevada representatives are protective of the prerogatives of casino management companies there, including MGM Mirage, which just built an $800 million casino in Detroit.

Reid is strongly opposed to the casino legislation, but Michigan's Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Carl M. Levin, support it.

The Interior Department opposes the legislation because if Congress acts, the agency would not be able to assess the impact of the land-claim settlement on the environment or on other tribes. It also would circumvent the department's role in reviewing gambling compacts between tribes and the states. "It may provide a road map for others to follow," Carl Artman, assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs, told the committee.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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