Senator John McCain Embraces Congressman Trent Franks' Anti-West Valley Casino Bill

Arizona's political heavyweights have spent years in federal court challenging the legality of Tohono O'odham Nation's proposed West Valley Resort, a casino near 91st and Northern avenues.

Since the law hasn't been on opponents' side, they've desperately been trying to change it.

Congressman Trent Franks, who is now joined by Senator John McCain, is attempting for at least the third year in a row to manipulate the terms of the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act with a narrow bill that would effectively block the Nation's casino.

See also: -Franks Proposes Narrow Special-Interest Measure to Block TON Proposed Casino -Glendale Mayor Fails to Convey City's True Stance on Gaming at Senate Hearing

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. says that "despite the opposition's latest efforts, we are confident that Congress, like so many others, will recognize the incredible benefits the West Valley Resort will provide to the region and all of Arizona."

Last year, Franks measure made it out of the House, but didn't go anywhere in the Senate. It's unclear how the bill will fare this year with McCain backing the companion bill.

McCain has been an odd player during this west-side casino controversy.

McCain, during his days as a U.S. Congressman, co-sponsored the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act that was signed into law in 1986. That Act gave the Nation the legal right to purchase up to 9,880 acres of private lands in Pima, Pinal, or Maricopa counties to replace all of the reservation land that the federal government inadvertently -- but carelessly -- destroyed when it built the Painted Rock Dam near Gila Bend.

The Nation bought a Maricopa County parcel neighboring the City of Glendale.

We're hardly surprised that Franks, an ineffectual politician with the warped belief that incidents of rape resulting pregnancy are very low, has reintroduced his narrow anti-casino bill.

But it's hard to understand why McCain is turning against a promise he helped make to the Tohono O'odham Nation via the Gila Bend Land Act.

During a July 23 U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, McCain tried to say that Indian gaming wasn't around in 1986 when he and other worked to get that law into place. But a top ranking official in the Department of the Interior reminded McCain that gaming had already emerged as a hot button issue and had sparked lawsuits across the country.

Despite his support for the anti-casino legislation, McCain told his fellow senators that the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act -- which he also worked on during his early days as a federal lawmaker -- "allows for a Vegas-style gaming facility to be built on trust lands if they were acquired by an Indian tribe under a Congressionally approved land claim settlement" and that in Glendale's case, that land claim settlement is the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act.

"I share the objections of many Arizonans when I see a casino being air dropped into the metro Phoenix area," he told the oversight senate committee. "However, I understand that U.S. Federal District Court has decided in favor of the Tohono O'odham Nation to acquire the land consistent with the technical wording in the Arizona gaming compact, and that the Glendale City Council recently voted in support for the casino."

Then, he told the body that those and "other factors could complicate Senate consideration of a bill that passed the House last year to prohibit gaming on the Glendale parcel."

Um, let's see ... federal Indian gaming law is on the TO's side. The Nation has a valid land settlement claim. Federal court rulings side with the Nation. Glendale champions the project. The proposal is consistent with the state gaming compact.

But, McCain is now doing Franks' bidding?!

So much for McCain's "hope" -- as he told the oversight committee -- that "we can still resolve this issue by sitting down party to party, individual to individual, Indian tribe to government and try and resolve this issue which has caused so much controversy and difficulty in our State of Arizona."

Changing the law is the only play the likes of McCain have left. That is, when you can't play by the rules, just change them.

"So, unless Congress acts in a way to prohibit what is happening now, it's inevitable that you will see the Tohono O'odham tribe operating a casino in Glendale. Is that pretty much an inevitability here?" McCain asked Kevin Washburn, the Department of the Interior's Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, at the hearing.

Washburn replied: "Nothing is ever a sure thing in Indian gaming. I've seen a lot of these things go sideways ..."

McCain pressed: "You can tell all parties involved that you have thoroughly examined this issue, that even though it is a tough decision, you've given a great deal of time and thought and consultation?"

"I have, Senator," Washburn said.

In the past -- specifically during an Arizona Republic editorial board meeting several years back, McCain couldn't have been more clear. He said he based his opposition to the casino project because he supported the local community, and at the time Glendale was fiercely opposed to the project.

And yet, now that Glendale, after a change of leadership, officially embraces the project, supports gaming on the Nation's land and opposes Franks' measure -- McCain is doubling down his efforts against the casino?

McCain asked other questions of Washburn about his federal department's decision to establish a West Valley reservation for the Nation earlier this month.

McCain asked whether the Department of the Interior established a reservation for the TON "on the grounds that the Gila Bend Land Replacement Act allowed for the land to be taken by the tribe, and then there was no prohibition as to what that land should be used for?"

Washburn: That's right. I'd go further and say that we believe that the (Act) actually mandated us to take the land into trust for the Tohono O'oham Nation, and we're following the law by doing so.

McCain: Does the Department of the Interior need to issue a final legal opinion on whether the Glendale parcel is legally able to house a gaming operation?

Washburn: I'm not sure -- given the District Court's opinion in the case -- that we need to do anything further.

(He outlined various steps the TON yet has to take before opening a casino, such as applying for a facility license from the feds and working with surrounding cities on water, traffic and public safety.)

McCain: Are you familiar with HR1410? That's the legislation that is proposed that would keep this from happening. Does that present a constitutional taking in your view?

A 'constitutional taking' is when the government renders private property useless because they either physically take it, or destroy it, or regulate to the point it's devalued.

Washburn said that while he'd have to consult with his lawyers, it is arguable.

McCain: Have you taken into consideration the strong opposition by other tribes in Arizona concerning this operation being set up by the Tohono O'odham?

Washburn: Ultimately, this was a legal question as to the meaning of the (Land Replacement Act). We called it like we saw it, but we consulted at great lengths with other tribes in Arizona.

Watch video of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs here.

(McCain's comments are at the 12 minute, 24 second mark, and his questions of Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, can be found at the 1 hour, 3 minute mark.)

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo