Are the Mashpee Playing Both Sides?

Two weeks ago, we told you that the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians—the Cape Cod tribe whose plan to build a resort casino helped push the commonwealth to get into the casino business by auctioning off state gaming permits—had no plans to pursue one of those state licenses. Instead, they planned to build their casino on Indian land they hoped to have put into trust for them by the federal government.

Now it looks like they may have been bluffing. And not doing it particularly well, either.

Talking to us last week, Rep. Brian Wallace, who is spearheading the pro-casino effort in the house, was shocked to hear the Mashpee were uninterested in a state gaming license. All along, he said, they had communicated directly to him that they would be involved in the state bidding process. This is especially important considering that one of Wallace’s main selling points is all the money the commonwealth stands to make up front just from the bidding on the licenses.

“They’re being disingenuous with someone,” he told us at the time. “For them to say they’re not going to bid on a license, is like, ‘Wow.'”

Wallace said he was going to get in touch with the tribe to find out what the deal was, and promised to let us know what happened. Well, he called us back today and said the tribe had just reassured him that they were in fact still committed to bidding on one of Patrick’s proposed licenses.

“They’re going to bid on the license,” he said. “They have never given me any indication to think they weren’t going to do that.”

It seemed strange to us that the Mashpee would either (a) so frequently change their minds or (b) simply be telling us and state legislators different things, so we rang up tribe spokesman Scott Ferson.

“Right now, the federal process is what the tribe is focusing on,” he said.

That doesn’t exactly sound like the assurances Wallace claims he’s getting. There’s nothing wrong with the Mashpee keeping their options open—with so much still in flux, they probably should—but they could be playing a dangerous game here.

“The tribe has never said that they wouldn’t be interested in working or trying to make a state process work, but right now there isn’t one,” Ferson elaborated. “The tribe is just waiting to see what the legislature comes up with.”

The key factor, he said, is “speed to market.” Basically, the Mashpee want to swing open the doors on a resort casino ASAP, and the quicker the state legislation gets passed (if it gets passed at all), the more attractive the state process becomes. “The longer it takes, the less value it holds,” Ferson said.

Basically then, it’s a race. Whichever process is faster is the one the Mashpee want. Regardless of what’s been said in the past, it seems the tribe would be happy to enter the bidding process for a state license, even if it would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. Any posturing about how they’re exclusively interested in pursuing a casino via the federal route—or have been planning all along to bid for a state license— it seems, was just an attempt to push the legislature into faster action.

“The state process could speed up, the federal process could slow down,” Ferson said “The state could offer something particularly attractive to the tribe, but that’s all speculation.”

Bluffing’s all well and good, but the Mashpee should be careful. This isn’t a poker game, after all.