Catawba Nation defends Chuck Schumer's inclusion of tribe's off-reservation casino in defense bill
No response from Senate Majority Leader to date (and Matt Drudge is watching).
WASHINGTON — Speaking of Senate Majority Leaders — this time, the current one, Democratic Chuck Schumer of New York — the Catawba Nation is defending the top legislator (and itself) after a D.C.-based publication alleged some “strange” and “unusual” circumstances involving the tribe’s freshly approved $273-million off-reservation casino deal.
In a piece titled, “The strange case of the casino, the Senate leader and the defense bill,” published by CQ-Roll Call on Jan. 13, reporter Mark Satter posited that something nefarious was going on when Schumer, along with U.S. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, inserted some pro-Catawba language into the December defense appropriations bill. This language effectively allows the South Carolina-based tribe to open a casino just across the state’s border in North Carolina.
Weird, right? Not so fast. Tribal borders are not always as distinct as state borders (tribes were here first, remember?), and the issue of off-reservation gaming is far from settled in the American judicial and executive branches.
Still, the CQ-Roll Call report quickly made the rounds in D.C. circles, with some tribal lobbyists and lawyers and legislative staffers outraged by Satter’s innuendo, and with other, anti-tribal interests happy to see tribal gaming portrayed in a less-than-positive light in the mainstream press (as has happened time and again over the decades).
A tribal lobbyist representing a tribe or two that may experience market impacts as a result of the Catawba arrangement slammed Schumer’s role, telling Indigenous Wire that they felt the inclusion of the project in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act was “inappropriate, but not entirely unexpected.” They also said it was a long time coming, noting that various North and South Carolina politicians and special interests over the years have been working to make it happen.
“Should Majority Leader Schumer lose his job over it, probably not,” the lobbyist continued, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis due to their ongoing business before Congress.
This particular lobbyist might have preferred to see a Catawba tribal casino potentially delayed indefinitely by going through the administrative process at the U.S. Department of the Interior and all the difficult off-reservation gaming hoops to jump through there. In 2018, during the Trump administration, Interior did just that, by rejecting Catawba’s off-reservation plans.
The Biden administration has been somewhat more friendly to Catawba, but even so, as the tribe’s leaders detail below, the courts then became the weapon of choice for their opponents.
While Catawba could have still ultimately gotten what it wanted by going through the legal process, that process would have no doubt been a slower one than what Schumer was able to accomplish legislatively on the tribe’s behalf in December.
The Catawba Nation is now firing back at any claims of wrongdoing, explaining in detail the strategic steps that got them to this point.
“The trust application process used by the Catawba Nation to have this land taken into trust has been used by tribes across the country since 1988,” the tribe’s leadership shared in a statement dated Jan. 18. “It is a very common process.”
The statement — which listed William Harris, chief of the tribe, as well as Assistant Chief Jason Harris and Treasurer Roderick Bell — said that the Catawba Nation initially submitted a trust application with Interior “to have the lands taken into trust as ‘restored lands.’” This meant that the tribe was “required to meet rigorous legal requirements, including documentation showing that it had a ‘historic and modern’ connection to the land,” the leaders said.
Ultimately, after what the tribal leaders called “an exhaustive years-long review” — Interior issued a decision saying that the tribe met the requirements to have lands taken into trust, after which the tribe opened a temporary gaming facility in July 2021.
The Catawba Nation noted in its statement that Interior’s decision to take the lands into trust “was immediately challenged in court by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” and that the nearby North Carolina-based tribe “lost their attempts at obtaining a preliminary injunction and also lost a decision by a federal court on the merits of the case.”
An appeal from the Eastern Band of Cherokees was recently dismissed regarding the issue.
(The Eastern Band, incidentally, is widely known to be working against the North Carolina-based Lumbee Tribe’s federal recognition efforts; a perception exists that the Eastern Band’s gaming market could be threatened if Lumbee were to be federally recognized once again and gain the ability to conduct gaming. Lumbee has previously been federally recognized, but lost that status during the federal termination era.)
Catawba leaders say that when it became clear that the Eastern Band would use the courts to delay Catawba’s off-reservation project, Catawba’s leadership decided to seek legislation to reaffirm the decision by Interior and to allow the project to move forward.
“Indian Country has been victim of these legal tactics far too many times when opponents of Indian gaming have used the courts to try to delay a tribe from using their trust lands,” the Catawba leaders stated.
The Eastern Band of Cherokees is perhaps justifiably unhappy that the legislative path Catawba took circumvented their anti-Catawba efforts in the courts.
“We are disappointed to not be granted the ability to defend our position in the courtroom,” Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said in a statement after the legislation passed. “The courts have been reviewing the legality of the Catawba casino, but this legislation will end that process.”
Sneed had previously told the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples during a September 2020 hearing that the Catawba Nation’s off-reservation casino deal would give tribal gaming “a black eye,” as CQ-Roll Call reported.
Sneed believed then, as he does now, that Congress should have allowed the federal courts to decide the issue.
But that’s not how the American political process works, noted Catawba leaders, who explained that in order to achieve legislative success, the Catawba Indian Nation Lands bill, which was included within the defense appropriations bill, was modeled after a similar bill — the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act – that overwhelmingly passed Congress and became law in 2014.
“Like the Catawba, the Gun Lake Tribe [of Michigan] had its trust land challenged in court by competing gaming interests as a way to stop the Tribe from using its trust lands,” Catawba leaders said. “Congress rightfully preserved the rights of the Gun Lake Tribe.”
As for whether anything “strange” or “unusual” happened in terms of lobbying to get the tribe’s legislation passed through both houses of Congress, the tribe rhetorically says “no dice.”
“The Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act went through the legislative process like any other bill,” the tribal leaders said. “The House Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill, took testimony from supporters and opponents, and then it voted to approve the bill in a voice vote. When the bill came to the House floor, it passed 361-55.”
On the Senate side, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on this issue, and the tribe sees nothing wrong with Schumer ultimately including the tribe’s legislation in the defense package.
“The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has long been used as a ‘catch-all’ bill to pass legislation at the end of a session of Congress,” the tribal leaders said. “Over the years, several tribal bills have been added to the NDAA with the support of Indian Country.”
“In order to get the bill included in the NDAA, our tribe was able to secure bipartisanship support from House and Senate leadership,” they added. “The Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act went through the regular legislative process.”
The fact is, “the regular legislative process” within the American political system includes a role for lobbying and a role for earmarks, which is what The Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act as part of the NDAA is considered. That earmarks are returning to the legislative process may be of concern to some, but favorable American Indian-focused legislation — much of it non-casino related — regularly passed that way until earmarks became a political hot potato during the Obama administration.
Satter, the reporter of the CQ-Roll Call article, implies (an unlikely) lack of understanding that the legislative process includes lobbying from all special interests, including tribal and gaming entities. And the publication has been rewarded for its coverage already, at least with web traffic clicks, as its article got picked up by the conservative-leaning Drudge Report, along with a sad-looking picture of Schumer.
Of note, CQ-Roll Call calls out various payments Catawba has made to lobbyists in recent years. Among them:
In the first nine months of 2021, the Catawba paid the D.C.-based law and lobbying firm Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker $30,000 to push for political action on its behalf, according to Senate lobbying disclosure documents.
The tribe also paid PACE, another D.C.-based lobbying firm, $90,000 over the same period. A disclosure from PACE lists “gaming on newly acquired lands” as its specific lobbying issue.
Among those at PACE listed on the disclosure forms are Devin Rhinerson, a former senior policy adviser to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Kevin Eastman, a former legislative director for Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.; and Scott Dacey, a former legislative liaison for the administrator of the Small Business Administration under President George H.W. Bush and the former chief of staff at the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal government’s lead regulatory agency of gambling conducted on tribal lands.
Another lobbyist, Rob Lehman of D.C.’s WilmerHale firm, also received $90,000 from the Catawba Nation in the first nine months of 2021. Lehman is the former chief of staff to Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
Further, the publication points out that Schumer himself has some interesting connections that may or may not be connected to the deal at hand:
Between August and September 2021, Jeremy and Louis Jacobs donated $17,400 to Schumer’s Friends of Schumer PAC.
Jeremy Jacobs is the chairman and Louis Jacobs the CEO of Delaware North, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based company that consulted on the Catawba casino project and now serves as the casino’s gambling and hotel operator.
“Delaware North is incredibly proud of our partnership with the Catawba Nation,” Louis Jacobs said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the casino in July 2021. Delaware North did not respond to a request for comment.
Schumer’s spokeswoman, Allison Biasotti, did not respond to a question about the nature of Schumer’s relationship with the Jacobs family.
Likewise, Biasotti did not return multiple requests for comment from Indigenous Wire, which, we point out as an aside, is bad optics and politics. If there is no problem, as the tribe explains in detail, Schumer should be more than willing to talk about it.
Of course, he’s been busy lately, but his staff surely noticed the Drudge link. If there’s something up with the Jacobs family connection, he might as well explain it.
The aforementioned Rhinerson, of PACE, helped facilitate getting the tribal leadership’s statement to Indigenous Wire.
As for whether he believes CQ-Roll Call did anything suspect in its reporting of this issue and whether he thinks it gave a fair shake to Catawba’s sovereignty, Rhinerson replied, “I am going to defer to the tribal leaders’ statement.”
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