Casino developer says DOI grants trust

Tribe says that feds authorized land for a proposed casino to be taken into trust, but land sale with city is no longer in place

Casino developer says DOI grants trustBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Developers of the proposed casino project announced Monday that they have a letter from the Department of Interior directing a city parcel of roughly 26 acres be into trust for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe to use for an Indian casino and entertainment complex.

Although casino developer Nigel White has circulated a press release detailing this claim, neither he nor officials of the DOI have responded to News Review requests for a copy of that directive.

White says in the press release that the authorization is part of the “proposed settlement” following a May 16 lawsuit filed by the tribe against the DOI, as well as Secretary David Bernhardt and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason. The suit claims that members of the department allowed political influence to delay taking the land into trust.

Without that assurance, the tribe ultimately did not remit final payment for the land before escrow expired last October. With some $5 million in payment from the tribe outstanding, the Ridgecrest City Council subsequently voted to decline the land sale in accordance with the escrow agreement.

According to White’s press release, the DOI wrote a letter dated Sept. 27, 2018, directing that the land be taken into trust — which would have predated both the close of escrow and the lawsuit. However, the release states that the letter was not released until June 3, 2019.

“The Department of Interior has determined that Congress mandated the trust acquisition of the Ridgecrest site pursuant to Section 5(d) of the Homeland Act,” said Tribal Council member George Gholson, as he addressed the public and the Ridgecrest City Council during Wednesday’s council meeting. “Pursuant to Section 7 of the Homeland Act, the Ridgecrest site shall be considered the tribe’s initial reservation and eligible for gaming pursuant to Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

“We are pleased that Interior made this decision, setting politics aside, and acknowledged the mandatory provision of the Homeland Act signed by Congress to right the wrongs against the tribe,” Tribal Chair Whitedove Kennedy is quoted in the release. “We are grateful and hopeful that we can finally move forward to provide employment and economic and infrastructure development for the community.”

The developer’s release also states that during his recent visit to Ridgecrest, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy “mentioned to guests that he supports” the tribe’s development, but “has a concern” about the proposed location – just south of China Lake’s front gate.

Brittany Martinez from McCarthy’s press office clarified that “the congressman supports tribal sovereignty, but in terms of this particular project there is a lot to still be worked out with the community.”

She and other members of McCarthy’s staff also said they were unaware of the Department of the Interior’s approval letter.

Gholson said he wasn’t “exactly sure why” the tribe received the letter more than eight months after it was dated.

“We have our suspicions why it took so long,” he said. “I have no idea why this sat on somebody’s desk, but this is pretty typical.”

More speakers took the opportunity to voice their support of or opposition to the casino project.

But aside from the merits — or challenges — of having a casino, speakers pointed out that the city was contractually obliged to support the project through the Municipal Services Agreement.

The MSA required the city to send letters of support for the casino development to the DOI and Bureau of Indian Affairs ­– and those letters were sent.

“If what happened in the Mammoth Lake Land Acquisition vs. the City of Mammoth Lakes case for breach of a development deal is any indication of what might happen, legal challenges could be economically devastating to the city of Ridgecrest given its financial challenges,” said the release.

“In that case Mammoth Lakes was ordered to pay more than $32 million for violating a similar agreement.

The Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition had already spent upwards of $15 million on Phase I of its hotel and condominium project. According to the case records, Mammoth Lakes “eventually changed its priorities” and “sought help from the Federal Aviation Administration to eliminate the [Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition’s] ability to build” the project.

In the absence of a land agreement, building investment had not yet begun on the local property.

“We are hopeful the city will comply with its agreement with the tribe and help us avoid litigation,” said Developer Nigel White as quoted in the release.

Ridgecrest’s legal counsel declined to comment on whether reopening a land sale agreement or taking other further action was an obligation required by the MSA.

Pictured: Casino developer Nigel White — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-06-07