The U.S. Interior Department may be getting closer to a decision about a long-pending application by the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma to take 10.5 acres of land in Park City into trust for a casino.
In a document filed in Kansas District Court recently, attorneys for the department said the Solicitor’s Division of Indian Affairs will finalize a memorandum to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in 30 to 60 days that will enable the secretary to determine whether to make a final ruling on the application.
For a case that has proceeded at a glacial pace, the memorandum could represent some significant movement.
“This is the report he was waiting on,” said Wyandotte Chief Billy Friend. “We’re trying to remain optimistic and believe that once the secretary receives that report, he’s going to make a decision. That’s all we ask for.”
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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.
A tribal casino in Park City, which wouldn’t pay any taxes, is expected to cut into the tax revenue from the state-owned Kansas Star Casino near Mulvane. A state consultant has predicted that it would reduce gambling revenue at the Kansas Star by 21.5 percent.
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.
The Wyandotte nation sued the department in July 2011, arguing it had unreasonably delayed processing its application. It argued that the department had no choice but to grant the application because the tribe purchased its Park City land with land-claim settlement funds from a 1984 law passed by Congress.
In April, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson refused to order the department to accept the land into trust, but she ordered the department to provide quarterly status reports on its processing of the application.
In its latest status report, the department said the Solicitor’s Division has been evaluating accounting issues raised by the state of Kansas and the tribe over funds the tribe used to buy the land in Park City as well as property in downtown Kansas City, where it currently operates a gambling hall.
“These materials are voluminous and the review of them has been time consuming,” the report said.
In November, the Solicitor’s office met with staff from the Office of the Special Trustees for American Indians, which manages tribal trust funds, and the OST provided its views on the case at that meeting, the report said.
The Solicitor’s Office will finalize its memorandum for the assistant secretary “as soon as possible,” the report said.
The case hinges on a determination of whether the Park City land was purchased with land-claim settlement funds. The 1984 law provided the tribe $100,000 to purchase land for a casino. The tribe has argued that it spent $25,000 of the money for the Park City land in 1992.
The state of Kansas, which intervened in the lawsuit, has argued that the tribe commingled the settlement funds with other tribal money, used questionable accounting practices and came up with fictional numbers to show that the money for the Park City land came from settlement funds, when in fact four years later it was able to spend $100,000 — plus $80,000 in accumulated interest — to buy the land for its casino in Kansas City. The purchase of the Kansas City property fulfilled the requirement of the law, the state has argued.
The state also has questioned whether the Park City land was purchased in 1991 or 1992, and whether the tribe made two $25,000 withdrawals from the fund, suggesting that it had used up half of its allotment.
The tribe has argued that 12 years of litigation over its Kansas City property, which the tribe ultimately won, established that it had used settlement funds for the Park City land.
The tribe has said that the Interior Department twice — in October 2010 and February 2012 — came close to a decision on its Park City application, therefore it must have determined on both occasions that the money came from settlement funds. Staff in the department were treating it as a mandatory application, not a discretionary application, which would have been handled differently, the tribe has argued.
The tribe has claimed that both times the department came close to signing off on the application, the state of Kansas introduced documents and letters to the department and lobbied it to delay the process.
Friend, the Wyandotte chief, said that tribe made its points again at a meeting in the fall in Washington D.C., which included a representative from the Solictor Division’s office.
“Our point with them was, it doesn’t matter how you do the accounting, the fact remains that the first $25,000 was spent on the land in Park City, ” Friend said. “We’re confident there’s only way to rule in the case, and that’s to take the land into trust.”