The New Haven Register on 01 December 2006

Repeal 'Vegas Nights' Law to Stymie Greedy Tycoons

by Jeff Benedict

Repeal 'Vegas Nights' Law to Stymie Greedy Tycoons

“You will see shovels in the ground next spring.”

That’s what Charlie Aspinwall, chief casino pusher for the Golden Hill Paugusetts, predicted earlier this month. In December, the national Bureau of Indian Affairs will announce whether the Paugusetts qualify for federal recognition, a prerequisite to building a casino in Connecticut.

The Paugusetts insists their recognition is a forgone conclusion. However, if the BIA denies them, the group whose Interstate 95 billboards advertise them as “a tribe with a plan” plans to sue 1.3 million property owners in possession of 720,000 aces in western Connecticut. The Paugusetts’ not-so-quiet Chief Quiet Hawk threatened that the land claim would put people “in a position that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to purchase, sell or receive loans on properties whose titles fall under the cloud of Indian land claims.”

The threat is more real than the tribe. Here’s why.

The Paugusetts are financed by Thomas Wilmot, a national mall developer who is also financing another casino-seeking tribal group in Illinois. The group Wilmot backs in Illinois already has filed a land claim that is tying up 2.6 million acres of real estate in 15 counties.

Wilmot will sue Connecticut property owners too. He has an investment to protect. To legitimize the Paugusetts, Wilmot has spent millions of dollars on lawyers, historians and genealogists. But a little known fact with large legal implications is that in 1996 the BIA thoroughly examined the Paugusetts’ recognition bid and rejected them, concluding that the 80-member group “did not descend from a tribe, but from a single individual whose Indian ancestry has not been determined.”

Wilmot has hired one of the nation’s biggest lobbying firms, Akin Gump, whose clients have included AT&T, CBS Corp., Mobil Oil, Dow Jones and America Online. Now add to that list the Golden Hill Paugusetts.

But the Paugusetts’ legitimacy rests in the thousands of staffers at the BIA, an agency that is obliged to make decisions based on law, not politics. Connecticut must insulate itself against the BIA’s scandalous recognition process.

The first step is to repeal its “Las Vegas nights” law, the state law that permits churches and charities to offer casino-style games for fund-raising purposes.

Under the federal Indian gambling law, tribes are entitled to build casinos only as long as the state permits casino-style games in the state. By outlawing casino-style games for charities, the state would also deactivate the federal Indian gambling law’s power over Connecticut.

The repeal would erect a barrier between tribal recognition and casino development. More importantly, it would take the state’s casino expansion policy out of the hands of a few BIA staffers in Washington and restore it to the state.

The Paugusetts say that repealing “Las Vegas nights” is a fruitless exercise that will do nothing to stop them. If that’s the case, why are they working so hard to halt the repeal?

Both Gov. John G. Rowland and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal support the repeal. But as the repeal effort continues to gain traction in the legislature, the Paugusetts and other casino-promoting groups will get louder in their claim that casino opposition is anti-Indian. The irony in that argument is as rich as the men who are hiding behind it: wealthy, white casino moguls like Wilmot and Donald Drumpf. Drumpf backs the Eastern Pequot tribe, which received recognition from the BIA earlier this year and wants to build a casino along I-95, near Foxwoods.

Yet in the mid-1990s, Drumpf testified against tribes’ right to operate casinos in Connecticut. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” he told the U.S. Senate.

Why has Drumpf adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach? Connecticut has the two biggest, most profitable casinos on Earth.

Combined, the annual intake of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun exceeds $2 billion.

Neither casino is exposed to building, zoning or environmental regulations. Both are exempt from all sales taxes, corporate income taxes, commercial property taxes and admission taxes. Labor laws don’t apply to the casinos’ thousands of employees. And both casinos are immune from personal injury lawsuits from patrons.

To top it off, Wall Street analysts insist that Connecticut’s casino market is nowhere near capacity.

Wilmot and Drumpf are using their millions to gamble with Connecticut’s future. Connecticut needs to repeal the Las Vegas nights law and send them a message about casino expansion: Enough is enough!