FALL RIVER – Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that the tribe’s $500 million casino project is ahead of others in the state, making it “unnecessary” to open the Southeastern Massachusetts region to commercial casino bids.

That was in sharp contrast to more than a dozen speakers at the commission’s meeting Thursday who urged commissioners to pull the plug on the tribe’s exclusive rights to the region, saying that a tangle of federal legal hurdles will slow the process to a crawl.

The commission heard three hours of testimony, but delayed making the much-anticipated decision for the next several weeks.

The meeting at Bristol Community College attracted more than 100 spectators, including dozens of members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, tribe lobbyist and former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt and Clyde Barrow, a gambling expert at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Cromwell said the tribe’s land in trust application, a federal requirement for an Indian casino, is being actively reviewed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the tribe this week signed a new compact with Gov. Deval Patrick.

“I’m here to tell you that our project is on track, that in fact we have made historic and swift progress toward our land being taken into trust by the secretary of the Interior,” Cromwell said. “We will have shovels in the ground by this time next year and will open for gaming by early 2015.”

Both Cromwell and Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr., who also testified, referred to a letter from a federal attorney stating that the tribe’s land-in-trust application is a “top priority.” It would be “unreasonable and unjust” to open the region, Hoye said.
Commissioner James McHugh said he had an opportunity to speak with Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who told him there are no “red flags” with the environmental review of the tribe’s land application, though he could offer no time frame for a decision.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, said the Legislature put the tribal preference in state legislation for a reason, so that Southeastern Massachusetts wouldn’t wind up with more than one casino and to avoid having a tribal facility that paid no revenue to the state. “If we wanted to put a time certain in the legislation, we would have done so,” Pacheco said.

Middleboro Selectman Allin Frawley, whose town once had a casino pact with the tribe, said letters dated 1899 and 1937 from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribe is proof that the tribe can’t claim it was under federal jurisdiction. Both letters refer to the tribe being under state jurisdiction.

If the tribe is unable to prove it was under federal jurisdiction, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as the Carcieri decision, could derail the tribe’s plans. That decision that calls into question the Department of the Interior’s authority to take land in trust for a tribe recognized after 1934.

Brooke Scannell, a spokeswoman for the tribal council, said the tribe would have no comment on Frawley’s testimony.

It would take a vote of Congress, which has been slow to materialize, to overturn the 2009 Carcieri decision, Marsha Sajer, an attorney for KG Urban Enterprises, said. KG Urban hopes to build a casino on the New Bedford waterfront and has sued in federal court for the region to be opened to commercial bids.

A so-called “Carcieri fix” has been filed by U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., but other similar bills have languished.

By negotiating a compact with the tribe before it has land, the state has put the cart before the horse, Sajer said. “Without land in trust – the horse – the cart cannot move forward,” she said.

Two New Bedford legislators and one Fall River representative – Rep. Robert Koczera, Rep. Antonio Cabral and Rep. Alan Silvia – urged the commission to begin accepting bids without further delay.

Koczera called the legal questions still facing the tribe “insurmountable obstacles” and pointed to the unemployment rates of New Bedford and Fall River, which are more than double the state average of 6.7 percent, and that the region has been devastated by economic downturn.

“The commission should not disadvantage Region C for good intentions,” Koczera said. “We need the revenue. We need the jobs.”

Southeastern Massachusetts led the charge to legalize casino gambling and now could fall behind the other regions of the state, Cabral said. “It would be irresponsible to drag out this process any longer,” he said.

Michelle Littlefield, representing a group of Taunton residents opposed to the casino, said the tribe lacks historical ties to the city. She said the tribe has not listened to residents in the neighborhood of the proposed casino, and they have vowed to block it by filing a lawsuit if it’s ever approved.

By George Brennan