Both sides lobbied hard for casino deal
They were stationed around the State Capitol complex like a couple dozen undercover agents.
The legion of lobbyists representing MGM Resorts International watched every step taken by Rodney Butler and Kevin Brown, chairmen of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan nations, on that early spring day, during their rounds pushing for a third tribal casino in East Windsor.
One lobbyist thought it was like a scene from a 1970s vintage crime movie.
There was a lot at stake.
It was part of MGM’s full-court press — lobbyists, national political figures, TV, digital media — aimed at opening up the bidding statewide, at best, or delaying a third tribal casino for as long as possible, so the company’s billion-dollar gambling resort under construction in Springfield could open up in the fall of 2018 with as little competition as possible.
Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, a public advocacy organization founded in 1970, likened MGM’s big play to a high-stakes game of blackjack.
“MGM gambled that hiring more and more lobbyists would work to their advantage — but they went over 21,” Swan, a longtime Capitol observer, said last week.
More than $3.2 million has been spent this year lobbying for and against the third tribal casino, which won approval during the legislative session and again last week, when the House of Representatives quickly voted in favor of a revised memorandum of understanding with the Mohegans and Pequots.
The issue will come to the state Senate on Monday for expected approval, then finally to the federal Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington for final action later this summer.
Consultants predict that the tribes’ joint venture could siphon away between $18 million and $20 million a month from the MGM site.
Once bitter rivals
Connecticut’s two tribes — historic bitter enemies and business rivals — won, for the time being.
MGM Resorts spent at least $2.1 million in this year’s losing effort to prevent the tribes’ planned East Windsor casino, according to filings in the Office of State Ethics. Twenty-five lobbyists registered with the OSE for MGM, with the task of persuading 151 members of the House and 36 senators.
An estimated $900,000 was spent on video ads and a TV campaign that featured an assured woman stressing the need for an “open, competitive” process. Connecticut can’t afford bad deals, another video warned, while lawmakers remained on a two-year track to approve the tribes’ East Windsor location.
Eric H. Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney general under President Obama, who wrote a letter against the third tribal casino.
The MGM effort was led by the Global Strategy Group, which was paid $1,477,688, according to the OSE. Global’s managing director in Hartford is Roy Occhiogrosso, longtime political adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Occhiogrosso supervised both of Malloy’s successful gubernatorial campaigns.
MGM also joined forces with the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Kent, represented by the high-powered Hartford lobbying firm of Sullivan & LeShane as well as by James A. Amann of Milford, the former speaker of the state House of Representatives. The Schaghticokes have been represented in court by Joseph I. Lieberman, the former U.S. senator.
Together and separately, the Pequots and Mohegans spent a total of $875,400 this year. They enlisted former Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba, whose Stamford firm, Stu Loeser & Co. LLC, was paid $137,924 to shepherd the tribal leaders through the Capitol maze, and arrange public-relations events featuring employees of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.
The Pequots and Mohegans also contracted with two former state lawmakers: David Cappiello of Newtown and Peter Smith of Milford.
“The tribes have a longstanding partnership with the state, and they understood the Springfield casino would have a significant impact on Connecticut,” said Smith, a former member of the House of Representatives who is a partner in the Hartford lobbying firm of Rome Smith & Lutz.
“To mitigate that impact, we brought some ideas forward to protect the Connecticut jobs and revenue,” Smith said. “Nothing precluded MGM from doing the same thing, picking a site in Bridgeport or Fairfield County and making a proposal. The more money they spent hiring lobbyists, bringing in high-profile names from Washington, TV ads and other things, it reinforced the fact that they were just protecting their investment in Springfield.”
Cappiello, who represented Danbury in both the state House and Senate and is now president of the Capitol Hill Group, said that the simple message was protecting and creating Connecticut jobs.
“Saving jobs is not a partisan issue,” Cappiello said. “It’s a Connecticut issue and a human issue. Secondly, we wanted to keep revenue in Connecticut. That was our focus, and it took time to educate and to explain how MGM Springfield was going to impact our state and our jobs.”
Friend against friend
On one level, the issue pitted two former top aides to Malloy, Occhiogrosso and Doba, whose Capitol offices adjoined each other during Malloy’s first term.
“Andrew is a good friend and he’s good at what he does,” Occhiogrosso said. “I enjoyed the time we worked together. It’s just different when we’re on different sides.”
“Roy is one of the best operatives in Connecticut or anywhere else for that matter,” Doba said. “Although we were on opposite sides in this fight, it would be great to work together again in the future.”
“It’s just like any issue you lobby for a client,” Amann said. “You’re trying to do the right thing for your client. We tried to make our points.”
Amann likened the lobbying effort to the last Super Bowl, when the New England Patriots made a big comeback to overtake the Atlanta Falcons.
“We were winning until the last quarter,” he said.
Then a combination pieces fell in place for the tribes to win overwhelming support in the House and Senate.
There were decades of accumulated good will for the tribes, whose slot machines have contributed $8 billion in state revenue over the last quarter century. Malloy announced late-breaking support for the East Windsor project. And the General Assembly finally accepted that as many as 9,000 state jobs could be lost if MGM took away business from Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun.
“Though we were outspent by a large margin, we knew that our message of saving Connecticut jobs was going to be effective because in the end, we were the home team,” Doba said. “All the other side could do was say there was a better deal. But that wasn’t true, when you looked at the long history between the tribes and the state.”
The fight is not over
The tribes are going ahead now with their $300 million East Windsor project along Interstate 91, about 17 miles south of Springfield. But the tribal leaders and lawmakers understand that MGM’s fight will go on in the courts and possibly the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“I believe going off the reservation makes this whole argument so much different that what has happened in the past,” said Amann who wants the Schaghticokes to get a chance to bid on a Southwestern Connecticut casino, possibly in Bridgeport. “It’s unconstitutional.”
Uri Clinton, MGM’s vice president and deputy general counsel, declined to say whether the company is lobbying the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reject the tribes’ expansion effort and the new memorandum.
“We’ve had a very strong position that legally there are constitutional issues we’re going to be pursuing,” Clinton said. “Litigation is part of the strategy. We really made a significant investment in trying to get a seat at the table, and we really value access to the New York market if that opportunity presents itself. Some people thought we were just trying to block, but last year we made a significant commitment to the state and we’re planning to engage next (legislative) session.”
KDixon@ctpost.com; Twitter: @KenDixon