Feds deny wrongdoing in Cowlitz casino decision

Feds offer official response to lawsuit, setting stage for a legal fight with national relevance

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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In a response to a Jan. 31 lawsuit by Clark County and others, the federal government has denied any wrongdoing in its decision to allow the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to establish a reservation and build a casino near La Center.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno filed the 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, setting the stage for a legal fight that may set a national precedent.

The challenge has taken 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 only put land into trust 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 ruling 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 which 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 issues.

Assistant Vancouver City Attorney Brent Boger said Tuesday that the next step in the case will be to set a schedule for filing briefs.

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

Earlier this year, Cowlitz Tribal Chairman William Iyall said the legal challenge was not a surprise and other landless tribes will be watching to see what happens.

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 been struggling.

Last month, Moody’s Investors Service again downgraded the gaming authority’s credit rating, saying they are at substantial risk for default.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.