MONTICELLO, NY-The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe did not pull any punches in its response to Friday’s denial of a land into trust application by Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne for its $600-million casino gaming facility to be built on a nearly 30-acre site at Monticello Raceway. The decision, while not unexpected, derails the gaming project that was seen by many as a catalyst for the revival of the struggling Sullivan County economy.

Development partner Empire Resorts Inc. saw its stock fall more than 50% in trading on Monday as investors reacted to the Interior Department denial, falling from $3.08 at the close of trading on Friday to $1.42 a share when trading ceased on Monday. Secretary Kempthorne sent out 11 denial letters to Indian Tribes seeking land into trust application approvals for gaming facilities across the US, including three tribes in New York State–the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe. The Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohicans is seeking to build a casino in Sullivan County, while the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe wants to build a gaming facility in Cayuga County. Kempthorne, who had previously testified to Congress about his misgivings on “off-reservation gaming,” denied the applications stating that the gaming sites were too far from the tribes’ respective reservations. The tribes received denial letters authored by Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Interior James E. Cason.

In a prepared statement the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe states the Interior Department’s denial while the final decision from the agency will not be “the last word.” The tribe plans to file suit against Kempthorne charging that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The only other recourse for the tribes is to wait until a new administration takes office in 2009.

“As far as we can tell this decision is 100% politics,” states St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Lorraine White. “Remarkably the Secretary has chosen to blatantly ignore the merits of our application and the undeniable strength of our administrative record in favor of catering to powerful self interest gaming groups. This decision defies all reason and is the product of a man and an administration that cannot stomach the idea of Native American success and financial independence.”

Tribal Chief White continues, “The language contained within the decision strikes me as a brazen paternalistic assault against not only the Mohawks but all of Indian Country. The clear message is that Indians belong on reservations and should be content to receive handouts and commodity cheese from the federal government.”

In December 2006, Associate Deputy Secretary James E. Cason issued a Finding of No Significant Impact for the tribe’s fee-to-trust application. In February 2007, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued a concurrence letter to Kempthorne signaling Spitzer’s approval of the land into trust application and the casino venture. All that remained was a final action by the department to acquire the parcel into federal trust status and ground could have been broken on the venture later this year.

On Oct. 31, after waiting eight months for a decision from Kempthorne, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe filed suit against the Secretary of the Interior seeking to compel him to make a decision on its land trust application. David Hanlon, president and CEO of Empire Resorts, in a statement termed Kempthorne’s decision “disappointing,” especially because the project had received considerable support from Spitzer, US Sen. Charles Schumer, US Congressman Maurice Hinchey, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel as well other elected officials.

“The company plans on meeting with these and other officials to discuss pursuing substantial economic development in the Catskills,” Hanlon states. “The people of Sullivan County and the surrounding area have waited too long for Washington to wake up and come to its senses. In conjunction with all of our state and local supporters, it’s time we took a hard look at a different approach to securing thousands of important jobs and economic opportunity.”

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