Federal ruling clears path for Pokagon casino

Gale Courey Toensing
1/18/06

NEW BUFFALO, Mich. -- The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians celebrated a
sweet victory Jan. 6, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia tossed out a lawsuit that has delayed the tribe's plans to open a
gaming facility for five years.

Unless the ruling by the three-judge appellate panel is appealed to the
U.S. Supreme Court, the decision clears the legal path for the tribe to
move ahead with the development of Four Winds Casino Resort on a 675-acre
parcel of land in New Buffalo Township in the southwestern part of the
state.

"We have been heard and understood. The tribe is jubilant. This court
decision is a monumental victory for the membership of the Pokagon Band,
residents of southwest Michigan and all of Indian country," Pokagon Band
Tribal Chairman John Miller said.

The appellate court ruling upheld a decision by a lower court judge last
spring to dismiss a long drawn-out lawsuit filed originally in 2001 by an
anti-casino group called Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos.

TOMAC filed a series of suits and appeals against Department of the
Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the BIA that challenged, among other
things, the Pokagon's right to be restored as a federally recognized tribe
after being "terminated" in 1935, and the department's authority to approve
the band's gaming project. The recent arguments centered on the group's
claim that the BIA had failed to comply with federal environmental laws.

The unanimous appellate court ruling said the BIA's environmental impact
review was "sensible" and "thorough." TOMAC's claims "miss their mark,"
have "no merit" and are "specious," the judges said.

"Tribal sovereignty, federal Indian law and the spirit of the U.S.
Constitution have all prevailed today. The tribe will move expeditiously to
begin construction of Four Winds Casino Resort. Our people have persevered
through an incredibly trying time these last five years, and today justice
has finally been granted," Miller said.

The development plans include a 110,000-square-foot casino, five or six
restaurants, a variety of gift shops, a child-care center, a 200-room
hotel, parking area and a parking garage.

Barring an appeal by the anti-casino group, tribal leaders said they will
be able to break ground by spring on the $150 million facility.

William Fulkerson, a lawyer for TOMAC, said the group will have to sit down
and decide if it wants to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court,
according to a published report in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

"Obviously, we are disappointed," said the Grand Rapids attorney. "We have
to think about and be deliberate about what we do next."

Fulkerson said TOMAC still has a lawsuit pending before the Michigan Court
of Appeals to block Michigan's governor from negotiating compacts, or
agreements, that allow Indian tribes to run casinos in the state.

Michigan tribes also face opposition from some of the state's congressional
delegation.

A day before the appellate court decision, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.,
renewed his call for "comprehensive reform of Indian gaming laws" and a
two-year moratorium on casino expansion.

Rogers, a former FBI special agent investigating public corruption, said
the moratorium should be held pending a full investigation on "how the
existing process was exploited in [Jack Abramoff] scandals reported in the
news media."

Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of corruption Jan. 3 in a widespread
federal investigation involving kickbacks and payoffs to elected officials
and high-ranking decision-makers in Interior. Abramoff is accused of
bilking six Indian tribes out of more than $80 million over a three-year
period.

Roger's comments elicited an immediate response from D.K. Sprague, the
chairman of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, known
as the Gun Lake Tribe.

"Mr. Rogers should look within his own neighborhood. If he wants to
investigate the Abramoff scandal, he should ask the House Ethics office to
subpoena all documents in which Congressman Peter Hoekstra [R-Mich.] and
any other elected officials collaborated with Jack Abramoff to stop the Gun
Lake federal land-into-trust process," Sprague said.

Hoekstra accepted $2,000 from Abramoff's lobbying firm in 2002 after
opposing the Gun Lake's application for land into trust. Abramoff sought to
block Gun Lake because its casino would threaten the market share of a
nearby casino operated by his clients, according to documents released
during the federal investigation.

Rogers also accepted money from Abramoff's former lobbying firms -- $4,000
from 2002 -- '04 -- from the firms of Greenberg Traurig and Preston Gates &
Ellis, according to www.opensecrets.org.

A call to Rogers' office seeking comment was not returned.

Gun Lake faces a lawsuit identical to the Pokagon's from a similar citizens
group called MichGO, Michigan Gambling Opposition, which is connected to
TOMAC through sharing the same law firm and public relations group.

"A moratorium will do nothing to clean the problems with lobbying and
federal abuse, and only promote the interests of those trying to prevent
competition," Sprague said.

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