Tohono O'odham Nation leaders opened the doors to the Desert Diamond Casino - West Valley in Glendale, Arizona, on December 20, 2015. Photo: WestValleyOpportunity

Tohono O'odham Nation secures victory in long-running gaming dispute

A highly-charged gaming dispute that set off a litigation, legislation and lobbying frenzy is finally coming to an end.

After eight years of battles, the Tohono O'odham Nation and the state of Arizona announced a settlement to their long-running feud on Wednesday. The deal allows the tribe to offer lucrative Class III games at the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino and Resort, its newest gaming facility.

“This is a day the Nation has long been working toward," Chairman Edward D. Manuel said in a press release.

“It establishes an agreement concerning the Nation’s ability to conduct Class III gaming on its West Valley land and it brings to an end the final dispute that was constraining this important project," Manuel added.

The project faced enormous political, legal and regulatory obstacles when it was first announced at the start of the Obama administration in January 2009. One by one, the tribe overcame nearly every obstacle -- including having the gaming site placed in trust -- and opened the facility to large crowds in December 2015.

Yet one huge hurdle remained. The state refused to certify the casino under the Class III gaming compact, accusing the tribe of misleading the public by pursuing a casino in the metropolitan Phoenix area. The new facility is located in Glendale, in the valley west of Phoenix.

Other tribes had agreed not to open new casinos in and around Phoenix but the Tohono O'odham Nation was not bound by that restriction, the federal courts ruled. Still, the state was able to prevent the addition of slot machines, blackjack and related games to the facility and even pressured vendors to stop doing business there. Liquor sales, another big money-making activity, also were barred.

The settlement resolves those matters once and for all, and in the tribe's favor. As a result, the state will be able to secure a cut of the revenues at the casino under the terms of the gaming compact.

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In exchange, the tribe has agreed not to pursue any new casinos in the Phoenix area. While the tribe will still be able to acquire trust land in the area, the settlement bars those lands from being used for Class II or Class III gaming.

“This agreement is a major victory for Arizona, one that ensures that there are meaningful restrictions on additional casinos in the greater-Phoenix-metro area.” Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said in announcing the "BIG NEWS" on Twitter. “This agreement brings the litigation on this issue to a close. It is time for us to move forward together.”

Despite the agreement, the tribe and the state recognize that the casino has generated controversy far from Arizona. In Washington, D.C., lawmakers repeatedly introduced bills to prevent the tribe from using the West Valley site for Class II or Class III gaming.

That in turn set off a huge lobbying war on Capitol Hill. Rival tribes with existing casinos spent millions of dollars in hopes of convincing Congress to pass the bills. They even came close a couple of times.

Arizona Casino Wars: Tribes battle over new gaming facility in the Phoenix area

In light of that threat, the settlement frees the Tohono O'odham Nation from development restrictions if anti-gaming legislation is enacted at the state or federal level. And if rival tribes end up opening new casinos in Phoenix, the Tohono O'odham can do the same.

“The Nation is eager to continue with its West Valley investment to create thousands of new jobs, positive economic development, and a world-class casino resort that all of Arizona can be proud of,” said Chairman Manuel, who happened to be on Capitol Hill testifying about the federal government's trust responsibilities when the settlement was announced.

The tribe had a reservation near Phoenix until it was flooded by the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act, Congress mandated the Bureau of Indian Affairs to acquire up to 9,880 acres to replace the lost lands.

The BIA followed the mandate in placing the West Valley casino site in trust. The state, local governments and other tribes disputed the acquisition but lost in the federal courts.

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