NC congressman raises questions about federal rules, potential conflicts of interest
Competing tribal claims and cross-accusations over a proposed casino resort near Kings Mountain came to a head Thursday during a Congressional subcommittee meeting.
At issue: the Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort, a proposed $273 million, 17-acre project in Cleveland County. The Catawba Indian Nation has been working for seven years to make the resort a reality. It plans gaming tables, 1,300 electronic game machines as well as restaurants, which it says will economically benefit the tribe and the area.
Although the Catawba’s headquarters are just across the border in Rock Hill, SC, the tribe claims the 17 acres in North Carolina as its ancestral land. The US Department of the Interior initially rejected the tribe’s request to acquire the land, citing a land settlement act approved by Congress in 1993. Under that act, the Catawba tribe is prohibited by South Carolina law from pursuing more lucrative gaming, having to restrict itself to high-stakes bingo. But the federal government reversed that decision in March, allowing the tribe to cross state lines and break ground on the resort in July.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opposes the resort. That tribe, which operates two casinos in western North Carolina, also claims the land in question as its ancestral territory and is suing in federal court. Tribal leaders say the federal government allowing the Catawba to move across state lines for the purposes of more lucrative gaming interests sets a bad precedent.
“This bill would give the entire tribal gaming industry a black eye,” said Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians during the meeting of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
The Catawba have benefited from a close relationship with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He introduced a bill to clear the way for the resort, a measure co-sponsored by North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. NC House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County attorney, has also represented developers involved in the project, though he has previously recused himself from discussion of issues related to the Catawba in the General Assembly.
Beyond the land dispute, the Cherokee take issue with unnamed “gaming partners” in the project and the involvement of casino developer Wallace Cheves in securing the deal.
Cheves, who is working with the Catawba on the resort, is a major Republican contributor who has given nearly $500,000 to Trump, Graham, Tillis and various GOP-related PACs according to Federal Election Commission documents.
Cheves, who was a top backer of Graham’s short-lived presidential candidacy in 2015, has a history of criminal and civil enforcement actions against him that involve illegal gambling, money laundering and the operation of illegal sweepstakes gaming in South Carolina.
“A person with this illegal gaming history could not get work as a bingo caller at any tribal gaming facility in America,” Sneed said.
Though the Catawba appear to have a lot of Republican support at the state and federal level, one prominent GOP voice expressed significant skepticism in Thursday’s committee meeting.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) posed a series of probing questions, including asking Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler whether he or his family had any financial interest in the casino and whether Neisler’s brother had done legal work on it. Neisler, who attended the hearing to support the Catawba and the casino, denied he has any connection to the project beyond it being good for the economy of his town.
“I’m just curious why those continue to be unnamed,” Walker said of the casino’s unnamed financial backers.
“Isn’t it true that this agreement violates the [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] and other industry standards, including the restored lands requirement?” Walker asked Sneed, referencing specific points of contention from the Cherokee’s lawsuit.
Sneed confirmed that those are the assertions of his tribe’s suit.
“This is not a fight between tribes,” Sneed said. “We do not oppose the Catawba’s ability to game.”
The1993 settlement act is clear as to how the tribe can run gaming operations in South Carolina, Sneed said. His tribe’s issue is with the Department of the Interior disregarding established rules in order to let the Catawba operate in North Carolina.
Walker asked no questions of William Harris, chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, who attended in order to argue for the resort. Harris didn’t counter any of Sneed’s claims about violations of established law, regulations and settlement acts or defend the project’s financiers or unnamed gaming partners.
Instead, he defended the Department of the Interior’s decision by concentrating on the question of the Catawba’s claim to the land.
“People have tried to suggest that this is ‘reservation shopping,’ but nothing could be further from the truth,” Harris said. “This is just a falsehood. As I have testified and as the evidence shows, these are ancestral lands of the Catawba people.
“Let’s be clear: ‘reservation shopping’ is when a tribe seeks to have lands placed into trust where they have no ancestral or current tie to the land. That is clearly not the case here. This is just a cynical attempt to misdirect and confuse the issues at hand before the members of congress.”
Gov. Roy Cooper would have to approve a compact to allow Class III gaming in order for the Catawba casino to include high-stakes table gaming and slot machines. Without that compact the tribe can only engage in Class II gaming — bingo and certain non-banked card games in which gamblers play against one other but not the casino or a single player who acts as the bank.
Cooper hasn’t made any public statements about negotiations for Class III gaming, but he opposed the casino project when he was the state’s attorney general.
“I think it’s a bad idea for our state,” Cooper told The News & Observer in 2013. “We are are busily trying to shut down video poker parlors all across the state and I don’t think we need another operation like that to stimulate the economy. There are other industries we should recruit.”