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Tribal, Glendale officials in West Valley Casino fight testify to Senate panel

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WASHINGTON – Tohono O’odham leaders “looked us in the face and lied” about their plans for a Glendale casino, and Congress needs to step in and stop it, opponents of the project told a Senate committee Wednesday.

“They broke faith with us and the voters of Arizona,” said Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, during a tense two-hour hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

But Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the tribe has “complied with the letter of every applicable law” and has “gracefully answered every allegation no matter how ridiculous or how offensive.”

Norris said Congress should not approve what he called “mean-spirited” legislation to block the project.

The testimony, part of a hearing on the future of Indian gaming, came one week after the Glendale City Council withdrew its longstanding opposition to a Tohono O’odham plan for the West Valley Resort and Casino.

The plan calls for a Las Vegas-style resort on property the tribe bought to make up for land it lost in the 1970s and 1980s, when the federal government built a dam that flooded part of its reservation.

That land is a “county island” – Maricopa County land surrounded by the city of Glendale – about 100 miles from the Tohono O’odham reservation.

The casino proposal was unveiled in 2009 and drew immediate opposition from city leaders and from other tribes in the Valley. But the plan has survived repeated court challenges and the Department of the Interior has declared the recently purchased property tribal trust land, making it possible to put a casino there.

Enos and other tribes in the area accused the Tohono O’odham of buying the land in secret, and said another casino in metro Phoenix breaks promises between the tribes and the state that were made in a voter-approved 2002 gaming compact.

Enos noted that the gaming compact is up for renewal in 2027, which why tribes are “fighting so hard” to oppose the Glendale casino. Voters need to be assured that their “word is good,” she said.

She urged the committee to pass a House bill that would block the casino until 2027. “This is a problem that only Congress can fix,” Enos said.

That was echoed by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott.

“TO’s promise to build no additional casinos in Phoenix is not something that Congress can ignore,” Gosar told the committee. “No entity, governmental or otherwise, should be rewarded for deceptive conduct that violates a compact and is contrary to the will of the voters.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, testified that the Senate should not approve the “special-interest” House bill. He said the bill would take the tribe’s land and breach the contract the government made with the Tohono O’odham to replace its flooded land and “make the nation whole.”

“Every court case, every administrative review, has upheld that law and the tribe’s right to the West Valley and the development of that” project, Grijalva said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was involved in drafting the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Land Replacement Act, the deal that allowed the Tohono O’odham to buy the Glendale land. McCain, now a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that he can see both sides of the issue.

“I share the objections of many Arizonans when I see a casino being air-dropped into the metro Phoenix area,” McCain said. But added he also understands the city and courts have ruled in favor of the Tohono O’odham proposal.

McCain said he hopes that by working together, the tribes, cities and state can resolve this issue which has “caused so much controversy and difficulties” in Arizona.

Assistant Secretary on Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn testified Wednesday that there are still “some steps that need to happen” before gaming can begin at West Valley, such as getting a facility license from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

But Washburn said he is not sure, given court opinions in the case, that the Interior Department needs “to do anything further in regard to an Indian lands determination.”

After Interior’s reaffirmation this summer that the land qualified as reservation land, the city of Glendale last week reversed its long-standing opposition to the casino, Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers said Wednesday.

The council voted 4-3 to support the casino after one council member changed his position, Weiers said.

“With few choices left, the slim majority of my council felt we had to come to the bargaining table with this deal,” Weiers told the committee.

“Our choice was not ideal: Continue to fight and hope for action from this body, or give in to this casino that was forced on us,” he said.