July 29, 2011

Tribe sues feds over Park City casino land

Running low on patience, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma has taken legal action to speed up the process for building a casino in Park City.

Running low on patience, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma has taken legal action to speed up the process for building a casino in Park City.

The tribe has sued the secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, accusing it of failing to take the tribe's 10.5 acres of land into trust for the casino.

The Wyandotte's land-in-trust application has been pending in the department since January 2009, after spending three years at a regional office in Oklahoma.

It awaits approval by Interior secretary Ken Salazar, who is named in the lawsuit.

The tribe filed the action in the federal court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

"We were left with no recourse but to take action against the department," said Billy Friend, chief of the Wyandotte. "We felt like we were patient."

The lawsuit argues that the department has no choice but to grant its application because the tribe purchased its Park City land with land-claim settlement funds from a 1984 law passed by Congress. The Wyandotte Nation had claimed it never was properly reimbursed for land the government took from it in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1843.

The Interior Department recently has been considering land-in-trust applications for off-reservation casinos from about 33 tribes, including the Wyandotte's. The Wyandotte's is the only one dealing with land purchased with settlement funds.

"They have an obligation to take the land into trust and have failed in their responsibility," he said.

The department has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, Friend said. A spokeswoman for the department said she'd look into the matter.

Friend cited a similar case involving the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona. That tribe purchased land for a casino near Glendale, Ariz., in 2003 after a settlement with the government, applied to have the land taken into trust, waited years, finally sued the Interior Department in March 2010, and had its application approved in July 2010.

"Ours is a much stronger case," Friend said. "We had 12 years of litigation supporting our application."

He was referring to the Wyandotte's legal battle with the state of Kansas over its casino in Kansas City, Kan., which it purchased in 1996 with funds from the same land-claim settlement case. The tribe prevailed last year when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver dismissed an appeal by the state. The Kansas City casino has been operating Class II, or bingo-style, gaming since 2008.

Former Kansas Attorney General Steve Six asked the Interior Department in a letter last year to halt the Park City casino. He contended that the tribe used all of its $100,000 land-settlement money on the Kansas City casino, satisfying the mandate of the 1984 law.

Current Attorney General Derek Schmidt reaffirmed the office's opposition to the casino for the same reason in a letter to the department in March. He hasn't received a response yet, according to a spokesman in his office.

The tribe has said it used $25,000 of the $100,000 to buy its land in Park City in 1992, before it bought the Kansas City tract four years later.

A tribal casino in Park City, which wouldn't pay any taxes, is expected to cut into the tax revenue from a state-owned casino near Mulvane. A state consultant has predicted that it would reduce gambling revenue from Kansas Star Casino by 21.5 percent.

Executives for Peninsula Gaming, which is building, and will manage, the Kansas Star near Mulvane, couldn't be reached for comment.

The Wyandotte have said they would open a $20 million to $30 million Class II casino in Park City, with 1,000 to 1,200 slot machines and a small restaurant.

It could expand if the tribe negotiates a compact with the state that would allow it to conduct Class III, or Las Vegas-style, gaming.

In addition to the 10.5 acres it purchased in 1992, the tribe last fall bought another 6 acres adjoining the now-closed Wild West World, nine miles north of Wichita, for the casino. It had planned for additional acreage, but hasn't negotiated for any more yet, Friend said.

"We don't feel it's absolutely necessary for us to have it," he said.

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