LEDYARD, Conn. - Once the envy of Indian Country for its billion-dollar casino empire, the tribe that owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino has been struggling through a financial crisis and pursuing more revenue from an unlikely source: U.S. government grants.
The money provided annually to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation through the Interior Department and the Department of Health and Human Services has risen over the last five years to more than $4.5 million, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act. One former tribal employee said department leaders were encouraged to offset dwindling resources by seeking more federal grants.
The Pequots, who once distributed stipends exceeding $100,000 annually to adult members, are not alone among gaming tribes seeking more federal aid. Several, including the owner of Foxwoods' rival Connecticut casino, the Mohegan Sun, said they have been pursuing more grants - a trend that critics find galling because the law that gave rise to Indian casinos was intended to help tribes become financially self-sufficient.
"The whole purpose of the 1988 law which authorized Indian casinos was to help federally recognized tribes raise money to run their governments by building casinos on their reservations," said Robert Steele, a former congressman from Connecticut. "I would argue strongly that federal money was meant for struggling tribes. Certainly the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans couldn't under any circumstances be put in that category."
As long as they have federal recognition, casino-owning tribes are eligible for the same grant programs as the larger tribes based on large, poverty-stricken reservations in the American West. The grants, which don't need to be paid back, support tribal governments by paying for programs such as health screenings, road maintenance and environmental preservation.
Thomas Weissmuller, who was chief judge of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court until 2011, said that near the end of his tenure the Tribal Council said it had distributed too much money to members and urged department leaders to pursue more federal grants. He said there was resistance from some council members, who raised questions about the effects on sovereignty, but he was personally encouraged to pursue grants by officials including the tribal chairman, Rodney Butler.
The reversal of fortunes for the Pequots began around 2008, when Foxwoods completed a major, costly expansion with the 30-story MGM Grand hotel and casino just as the recession began to show its teeth. The following year the tribe defaulted on debt exceeding $2 billion.
Mohegan Tribe officials said they took pride in refusing federal grants for years, in acknowledgment that there were needier tribes. But tribal officials said they relaxed that position as their Mohegan Sun casino has faced growing gambling competition from neighboring states.