Tribal casino opens without license

Posted at 10:31 AM, Dec 20, 2015

A southern Arizona tribe opened the doors of a long-planned casino on Sunday at 1 p.m., but the sprawling Phoenix-area property is missing a key component -- casino games.

The Tohono O'odham Nation unveiled its new Glendale-area casino despite lacking the necessary certificates from the Arizona Department of Gaming. State officials have refused to issue a certification for Desert Diamond Casino West Valley.

As a result, there won't be any high-roller table games involving a dealer, such as blackjack. Guests looking to play the slots will instead have access to bingo-style games that look like slot machines. The bingo-style games fall under "Class II" gaming. Table games fall under Class III.

"The state stepped in before we could purchase the slot machine, saying it was an unauthorized facility but it's not an unauthorized facility. So we couldn't put in the Class II machines, so we converted it to Class II," Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Edward Manuel said.

The Gaming Department has not approved Class III activities because its gambling compact with the tribe was not "validly entered" under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, according to a department spokeswoman.

In an April 8 letter, Gov. Doug Ducey told Gaming Department Director Daniel Bergin that the tribe engaged in fraud because it didn't disclose its plans for a casino in the Phoenix area while negotiating a gambling compact. He also said the state might consider canceling its entire gambling compact with the tribe.

The state argues that the voter-approved 2002 gaming compact barred the construction of new casinos in the Phoenix area. The tribe unveiled its plans for the massive resort and casino near the University of Phoenix stadium -- where the NFL's Arizona Cardinals play -- in 2009. The tribe purchased the site after receiving a $30 million federal settlement to replace nearly 10,000 acres of ancestral reservation land damaged by a dam.

A federal judge denied a request from the tribe in September to issue an injunction compelling the state to stop blocking the casino. According to the ruling, the tribe failed to show it would suffer irreparable harm because it will generate revenue with the bingo machines. But the judge allowed part of the tribe's lawsuit to proceed.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a former state Gaming Department director, said the casino could imperil the entire agreement allowing Indian gambling in Arizona.

"I will just say generally that I do think that if that casino opens in the West Valley, it is a game-changer, and I think it does undermine the promises that were made to Arizona voters that gaming was going to be limited and well-regulated," Brnovich said.

Carl Braunlich, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, International Gaming Institute, said it's not uncommon for a tribal casino to operate without the high-stakes games one would expect at a Vegas casino.

"Tribal casinos operate successfully all around the country without Class III gaming, without table games," Braunlich said. "If they offer restaurants and entertainment and bars and retail -- something other than just convenient gaming -- then they're going to be fine."

No matter how much the state may oppose a casino, there is very little it can do.

"The fact is tribal gaming on tribal land is a federal issue, not a state issue," Braunlich said. "The state, even though it feels its authority is being impugned, the way the laws are stated ... the state has to keep its hands off."

For the tribe, the opening marks the end of a long road.

"I'm absolutely amazed, really. They said there was 3,500 people waiting to get in when they opened up. That's a lot of people," patron Dale Snyder said.

Manuel called the opening "a great day" for the Tohono O'odham Nation and the state. He believes the casino will prosper, even without Class III games.

"It's well put together. The space is good. Considering all the people that are here, you can get through, it's nice," patron Peggy Martin said.

"We are confident that this facility will be an enormous success for the region, and we are eager to keep moving forward," Manuel said in a statement. "Obviously, once we succeed in the litigation with the state, we will work to implement Class III."

The project has faced opposition from state and federal officials since it was announced in 2009. Earlier this year, the U.S. House and Senate introduced legislation aimed at stopping the project. The bill would have prohibited construction of any new tribal casino on unincorporated land in Maricopa County that was not next to an existing Indian reservation. The bills failed to go anywhere.

The tribe has won a series of court cases. A U.S. judge ruled in 2013 that nothing in the compact explicitly barred another Phoenix casino, a decision the state is appealing. A federal appeals court ruled last month that a 2011 state law designed to block the casino plans was unconstitutional.

The city of Glendale backed the casino after years of litigation and political battles.