State’s still mum on casino lawsuit

Lack of support for a county’s position is seen as unusual

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Clark County has asked the state to intervene in its lawsuit against the federal government over the decision to allow the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to establish a reservation and build a casino near La Center.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart told Commissioners Tom Mielke and Marc Boldt last week that he had asked Attorney General Rob McKenna to intervene, but McKenna expressed concerns.

Stuart told Mielke and Boldt that the state typically backs a political subdivision in a fight against the federal government. He said attorneys involved in the case said that if the state stays silent it will not be unnoticed by the judge.

When asked for a comment, McKenna’s spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie issued a two-sentence statement: “The Office of the Attorney General has been asked to consider intervening in this case. We are considering our options and will be discussing these options with the Governor and our clients (relevant state agencies) to determine the most appropriate course of action.”

The federal government has denied any wrongdoing in its decision.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno filed a response June 10 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The 19-page response was a point-by-point denial of all allegations made in the Jan. 31 lawsuit, setting the stage for a legal fight that may set a national precedent.

No date has been set for oral arguments.

The challenge has taken on a special significance after the Obama administration chose to make the Cowlitz land trust case a test case of a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that ruling, known as Carcieri, the high court said the government can put land into trust only for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

In saying the Cowlitz could establish a reservation, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk addressed Carcieri at some length in his December decision.

“For purposes of our decision here, I need not reach the question of the precise meaning of ‘recognized Indian tribe,’ as used in the (Indian Reorganization Act), nor need I ascertain whether the Cowlitz Tribe was recognized by the federal government in the formal sense in 1934, in order to determine whether land may be acquired in trust for the Cowlitz Tribe,” Echo Hawk wrote in his ruling.

The Cowlitz were federally recognized in 2000; that recognition was challenged and reaffirmed in 2002.

“The Cowlitz Tribe’s federal acknowledgment in 2002, therefore, satisfies the IRA’s requirement that the tribe be ‘recognized,’ ” Echo Hawk wrote.

Joining Clark County in the challenge of Echo Hawk’s decision: the city of Vancouver; nearby property owners Al Alexanderson, and Greg and Susan Gilbert; Dragonslayer Inc. and Michels Development, operators of the four La Center cardrooms; and Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, a group that includes Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian.

The plaintiffs also argue, and the defendants deny, that the current plans have inadequate mitigation for stormwater, traffic, light and noise.

Stuart said one possible way the state could intervene would be on behalf of the Department of Ecology, which could challenge the stormwater plans.

The defendants are the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

The day after Clark County filed its lawsuit, the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde — owners of the Spirit Mountain casino in Oregon, which draws gamblers from Clark County — filed a nearly identical lawsuit.

The cases were assigned to the same judge and may be consolidated, according to court filings.

The plans for the Cowlitz reservation, which would be west of the Interstate 5 interchange in La Center, call for a two-story casino with 3,000 slot machines, 135 gaming tables, 20 poker tables and a 250-room hotel, plus an RV park, 10 restaurants and retail shops.

But that $510 million complex was proposed before the economy tanked, and the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which partnered with Cowlitz tribal member and real estate developer David Barnett of Seattle to operate the casino, has had its credit rating repeatedly downgraded by Moody’s Investors Service.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; http://www.twitter.com/col_clarkgov; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.