Connecticut Tribe Anticipates Massachusetts Competition

The Mohegan Tribe, which operates the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, wants to open another gaming facility to protect the economy from competition, in the form of MGM Resorts International's $800 million casino, opening in 2017 in Springfield, Massachusetts. But so far Connecticut lawmakers are not too concerned about potential revenue losses.

Last November, Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown said the tribe wants to offer casino gambling in at least one more location—not to expand gaming, but to protect an important segment of Connecticut’s economy from upcoming competition. “This issue is not about gaming as an industry. It is about protecting the business and jobs developed in Connecticut over two decades that are the envy of other states,” Brown said. The tribe operates the Mohegan Sun facility in Uncasville.

Specifically, MGM Resorts International will break ground soon on an $800 million casino in Springfield, Massachusetts, set to open in 2017, one of three casinos that have been approved in Massachusetts. MGM officials have made it clear the casino will target Connecticut’s gaming industry, Brown said. In addition, new casinos are being developed in Massachusetts near the Rhode Island border and near Boston. In the past few years, two other casinos opened in Lincoln and Newport, Rhode Island.

“Make no mistake, Connecticut is the target market for the newly approved resorts in Massachusetts and New York. Mohegan Sun, of course, will survive as a desirable destination. The question will be, at what cost,” Brown said. Opened in 1996, Mohegan Sun employs about 8,000 people. Foxwoods Resorts Casinos, which opened in 1991, has about 5,500 employees.

But state officials from both parties don’t seem to be alarmed. State Rep. Steve Dargan, co-chair of the Public Safety and Security Committee, said getting approval for new gaming sites will be challenging. “Right now I don’t know if there is the interest to do any of this. We might not want to waste our time if it’s not something that’s going to clearly come forward. The track record on the expansion of gaming hasn’t been that good in this state,” Dargan said.

State Senator Martin Looney, incoming Senate President Pro Tem, said, “There hasn’t been a lot of serious talk about it and without a proposal the topic lacks the momentum. Until there is a concrete proposal with some idea of specifics and momentum behind it, anything short of that is just speculation at this point.”

State Rep. Peggy Sayers is the only legislator calling for more gaming sites. “I think it’s something that we need to discuss. It’s a real problem, and you can’t avoid it. I don’t know if Public Safety is going to raise a bill, but I am certainly going to put in a bill. Connecticut has been too slow to recover jobs since the last recession. We can’t ignore what’s happening.”

Sayers said she believes the economic threat and potential loss of jobs will encourage more lawmakers to join her after the after the regular 2015 General Assembly session begins on Wednesday, January 7. She wants lawmakers to consider allowing casino games at the Bradley Teletheater, one of 15 off-track-betting operations licensed in Connecticut and operated by the British firm Sportech, located in her district adjacent to Bradley International Airport. She’s also promoting allowing casino games at OTB facilities in Bridgeport and in New Haven. “Springfield is building something new and huge. We have already seen certain losses in the amount of money we have seen from the slots,” she said.

Governor Dannel P. Malloy said, “I don’t see Connecticut doing it, but, you know, that’s a legislative matter, at least initially. I don’t think that there is a consensus in Connecticut that people want a lot more gaming. My administration is not playing a lead role in this, is not playing a direct role in this. I’ll have discussions with legislative leaders if, and when, they want to have those discussions.”

In May 2013, Malloy and fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority enacted a biennial budget that allowed the state to legalize keno in restaurants and bars. But due to the public’s strong negative reaction, that authorization was revoked one year later, before the games were implemented. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, have exclusive rights to offer to casino games, in exchange for giving the state 25 percent of their annual video slot receipts. That amount peaked at $430 million in 2007, but has been declining ever since. For 2014, receipts are projected at $279 million, with $268 million in 2015 and by $191 million by 2018.

Also in Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot tribal court is holding a pretrial hearing concerning whether it should have given convicted felon and former Tribal Councilor Steven Thomas a job in personnel. The challenge was filed by Attorney Henry Sockbeson representing tribal member Charlene Jones who applied for the same job and claims she is more qualified than Thomas. “It baffles the mind. He actually is the first face that our new employees are seeing for orientation,” Jones said. Thomas was hired last December while awaiting sentencing for stealing $177,000 from the tribe. Tribal officials claimed the federal prosecution went against its sovereignty.

At issue is whether Thomas could have been considered “in good standing” when he was hired. Ursula Haerter, director of the Mashantucket Employee Rights Office, said, “At the time of hire, the incumbent was not banished, and therefore entitled to preference.” Haerter asked the judge to dismiss Jones’ claim outright. Thomas was sentenced to three months of home confinement last February; in March he was banished from tribal land for one year, excluding his home on the reservation and his job at Foxwoods.

Sockbeson told the judge, “You shouldn’t hire a person who is convicted of stealing from you to work for you in another position less than a year later.”

Thomas was convicted of theft in 2007, after admitting he falsified time cards when he was assistant director of the tribe’s natural resources department. At sentencing, the judge spared him from serving time in prison because she said she was impressed that he had reformed.

His brother, former tribal chairman Michael Thomas, is serving an 18-month prison sentence for embezzling more than $100,000 from the tribe.

The tribal court judge did not say when a ruling will be issued.