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Federal agency OK’s Mashpee Wampanoag casino compact

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe wants to build a resort casino in Taunton.

George Rizer/Globe photo/File

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe wants to build a resort casino in Taunton.

Federal officials have effectively approved a compact between the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the state laying out a revenue deal for a proposed tribal casino in Taunton, but the future of the project remains uncertain.

Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the US Department of the Interior, said in an e-mail Friday that the deal “has been deemed approved by operation of law” under a federal statute governing tribal casinos. Such a step “is not uncommon,” Darling wrote.

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The compact calls for the tribe to pay the state up to 21 percent of its gambling revenue, though a range of 15 to 17 percent is more likely. But even with the deal’s approval, the Interior Department still must place the proposed casino site into federal trust before a tribal gaming facility can open there.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said Friday that the tribe expects to have its trust application approved by next summer, a claim that was met by skepticism in some quarters.

“Today’s a very exciting and important day for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe,” Cromwell said by phone. “We’re excited about putting the shovel in the ground in 2014.”

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Asked about the status of the tribe’s bid to have the land taken into trust, Darling said that the agency was reviewing the application. She did not respond to a follow-up inquiry regarding Cromwell’s timeline.

Governor Deval Patrick’s office confirmed Friday that the compact was approved because the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the Interior Department, took no action within 45 days after receiving it for review. Cromwell said the review period expired Thursday.

The government had rejected a previous compact between the state and the tribe.

“I’m pleased that the Commonwealth’s compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has been given final approval under federal law,” Patrick said in a statement Friday. “This is another important step toward growing jobs and opportunity in the southeast region and a good deal for both the Commonwealth and the tribe.”

But Michelle Littlefield, cochairwoman of the anticasino group Preserve Taunton’s Future, said Friday that the tribe’s application is incomplete and that she doubts the casino will win approval any time soon.

“That’s the bottom line: They don’t qualify” to have land taken into trust, Littlefield said. “They know it. We know it, The [Bureau of Indian Affairs] knows it.”

Indian casinos can only be built on sovereign tribal land, and the Mashpee have no land that qualifies. They have asked the Interior Department to take 150 acres at the junction of Route 24 and Route 140 in Taunton into federal trust, which would make the land eligible to host gambling.

States cannot tax sovereign tribal nations, though tribes are permitted to trade casino revenue for concessions from the state, normally an exclusive zone with no commercial casino competition.

The Massachusetts gambling commission is reviewing applications for separate state licenses for casinos in three geographic areas, including a southeastern region that includes Taunton.

One company, KG Urban Enterprises, has applied for the southeastern license to open a New Bedford casino, which would compete with a tribal facility in Taunton.

Foxwoods is also weighing whether to seek the southeastern license for a Fall River casino, the Globe recently reported.

The tribe would pay nothing to the state if a commercial resort casino opened in the southeast, under terms of its newly approved compact.

In a statement, Jeffrey M. Harris, a lawyer for KG Urban, said Friday that a 2009 Supreme Court decision held that tribes such as the Mashpee are not eligible for new tribal lands.

“The notion that the tribe will ‘break ground on a casino by the end of 2014’ is nothing short of absurd,” Harris said.

The high court ruled in 2009 that the Interior Department could only take land into trust for tribes that were under the jurisdiction of the federal government in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted.

The Mashpee Wampanoag were not federally recognized until 2007.

Some tribes and the Interior Department have tried to get around the Supreme Court ruling by taking a broad view of what it means to be under the jurisdiction of the US government.

They contend that a long, ongoing relationship with some federal branch should be good enough, even if a tribe’s name does not appear on any official list of recognized tribes in 1934.

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@TAGlobe.
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