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May 31, 2020

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Vancouver loses casino lawsuit, wins concession

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The city of Vancouver recently lost its second fight in federal court against the National Indian Gaming Commission, which the city sued in an effort to try to challenge one piece of a proposal to build a casino west of La Center.

But while a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Seattle upheld a federal court judge’s 2008 dismissal of the lawsuit, the city did come out a winner in one sense, assistant city attorney Brent Boger said Friday.

The city won a key concession, Boger said, in that the court said that the city does have standing to challenge the decision if the federal government allows the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to have the fields west of Interstate 5 taken into trust. The land will need to be taken into trust before it could be developed as a casino.

However, the tribe’s dream for a casino in north Clark County has been clouded by uncertainty.

One complicating factor has been a Supreme Court decision blocking tribes not under federal jurisdiction prior to 1934 (when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted) from taking land into trust. Congress has been debating reversing that decision with what’s been called the “Carcieri fix,” named after the court case.

The Cowlitz tribe contends that even though it was not federally recognized until 2000, it was under federal jurisdiction prior to 1934.

Also, there’s been no publicly stated precise answer to the question: When will that trust decision be made?

The application, which was to establish a 152-acre Indian reservation and put a $510 million casino-hotel complex on it, was submitted in 2002.

Lynn Malerba, chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which would build the casino, said in July that the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has been “dragging its feet” on making a decision on the Cowlitz’s application. She said she had been spending time in Washington D.C. and believes a decision could come soon.

Matt McAlvanah, a press secretary for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in her Washington D.C. office, said Thursday he has not heard when a decision will be made.

Phil Harju, spokesman for the Cowlitz tribe, did not return a call seeking comment.

Malerba made her comment during a July 29 conference call for Mohegan executives to discuss third-quarter fiscal results.

The Mohegan tribe operates casinos in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

The Mohegans’ financial status must be reported to the federal government because their debt is traded publicly. Its third-quarter net income was $11.6 million, down 50 percent from the same three months in 2009.

Another complication? The recession.

Publicly, Mohegan executives remain upbeat about the possibility of building a casino in Clark County.

“We’re anxious to get started,” Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hartmann said July 29. “It’s going to create hundreds of jobs.”

On paper, Mohegan executives tell another story.

In the tribe’s 2009 financial report, it wrote off $8.6 million, a third of its investment so far in the Cowlitz project, on the expectation the deal could fall through.

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

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