Business , Legal

More tribes join federal lawsuit over gaming compacts

Photo caption: Osage Casino patrons play roulette at the Tulsa location. Osage News

OKLAHOMA CITY — A fourth tribe is attempting to get involved in a federal lawsuit over whether Oklahoma’s state-tribal gaming compact automatically renewed Jan. 1.

On Jan. 24, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations in the Western District of Oklahoma against Gov. Kevin Stitt. The Shawnee-based tribe is the largest single employer in Pottawatomie County.   

“The defendant’s repeated and ongoing public declarations that the CPN’s lawfully conducting gaming activities are ‘illegal’ are contrary to federal law and directly interfere with CPN’s federal rights to conduct gaming under its valid and renewed gaming compact,” attorneys George Wright and Gregory Quinlan wrote in the tribe’s motion.

The legislature for a fifth tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, voted unanimously on Jan. 21 to appropriate an extra $500,000 to its Office of the Attorney General for costs associated with joining the fray.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s motion comes less than 48 hours after Gov. Stitt filed his response to the tribes’ lawsuit.

On the evening of Jan. 22, Gov. Stitt filed a response and counterclaim to the tribes’ lawsuit. In addition to asking for an injunction barring Class III electronic gaming until a new compact is in place, Gov. Stitt’s rebuttal requests that revenue generated from those games after Jan. 1 be put into a trust. Class III table games, including blackjack, poker, craps and roulette, are not mentioned in the injunction request.

Seeking higher exclusivity fees from the 30-plus gaming tribes across Oklahoma, Gov. Stitt has publicly held that the compacts expired on New Year’s Eve and that any Class III electronic gaming conducted after that date is illegal.

However, it has been business as usual tribal casinos across Oklahoma in the new year, as the state’s 30-plus gaming tribes maintain that all of the conditions have been met for the compacts to automatically renew for another 15 years. Gov. Stitt has not said publicly what, if anything, he will do with the exclusivity fee payments from January revenue should a federal judge deny the motion to create a trust.

“I am not going to get into exactly what I am going to do strategy-wise on the specific fees,” he said at a Jan. 23 press conference.

In December, the governor announced that Perkins Coie would be advising him on compact talks. However, on Jan. 22, his office confirmed that the firm would no longer be involved with the dispute as of Jan. 24.

Instead, Oklahoma City firms Ryan Whaley and Lyles Soule and Felty will be representing Gov. Stitt. The latter brings Gov. Mary Fallin’s former general counsel, Steve Mullins, into the litigation. He was one of the state’s lead negotiators during tribal tobacco compact talks in 2013.

Addressing reporters Jan. 23 at the state Capitol, the governor expressed confidence in his new legal team.

“My attorneys in Oklahoma are fantastic litigators,” Stitt said. “They are fantastic attorneys, and they are going to win this lawsuit in federal court, and I am going to fight for a fair deal for all 4 million Oklahomans.”

Stitt’s office did not respond to inquiries about how much Perkins Coie was paid for its brief involvement or how much the governor has spent to date on attorneys’ fees stemming from the compact dispute. Attorney General Mike Hunter withdrew from the case in December. Prior to Perkins Coie’s involvement, the state of Oklahoma had also retained another law firm, Michigan-based Dykema Gossett, as a consultant.

More than 30 Oklahoma tribes have publicly pushed back against the governor’s assertion that the gaming compacts expired on New Year’s Eve. Stephen Greetham, an attorney for the Chickasaw Nation, said despite Gov. Stitt’s comments to the contrary, the tribes are still willing to negotiate new rates but are not interested in throwing out the existing compact and starting over from scratch.

“The single most important ingredient with the tribal unity we’ve seen is that tribal leaders are not going to just stand by while yet another government tries to walk away from an agreement,” he said.