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Patrick, Aquinnah clash over casino bid

Governor Deval Patrick will not negotiate with the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah over a tribal casino, dealing a blow to the tribe’s long pursuit of a gambling resort in Massachusetts.

In March, the tribe formally asked Patrick to enter negotiations, citing its rights in the law to pursue Indian gambling.

Patrick, in response, is citing a longstanding position among state officials that the Aquinnah surrendered their rights to pursue tribal gambling in a 1980s settlement of a land dispute on Martha’s Vineyard.

That longstanding position is likely to be tested in federal court. on Wednesday, the Aquinnah promised to sue.

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The federally recognized Aquinnah tribe holds options to buy land in Lakeville, Freetown, and Fall River and is seeking to build a casino at one of those sites. The tribe has also talked about pursuing a casino on tribal land on the western edge of the Vineyard.

Patrick informed the tribe that he would not negotiate in a letter last Friday from Holland & Knight, his legal consultant on tribal gambling issues. A negotiated deal between the state and the tribe, known as a compact, is the first step toward winning approval under the federal law that governs tribal gambling, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Aquinnah said yesterday that the tribe was disappointed, but still hoped to begin negotiations.

“If the governor refuses to negotiate,’’ Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the Aquinnah chairwoman, said in a statement, federal law “provides for specific remedies that we will pursue in federal court.’’

Federal law grants tribes the right to negotiate with states over the operating details for a tribal casino, such as how the casino would be regulated and how much of its revenue, if any, would go to the state.

Patrick is in compact negotiations with another tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, over a casino proposal in Taunton.

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“The governor . . . is not interested in picking winners and losers’’ among the state’s Indian tribes, said Patrick’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, but “it has been the Commonwealth’s position that the two tribes are in fundamentally different situations.’’

State officials have maintained for years that language in the Aquinnah’s settlement agreement from the 1980s subjects all of their land to state law, including state law that restricts casino gambling. The expanded state gambling law approved last November sets out a lengthy competitive process for the approval of a limited number of commercial casinos in Massachusetts.

Under the state’s position, the Aquinnah could conceivably pursue a commercial license like any other large landowner in Massachusetts, but their status as a tribe would provide no advantage.

Tribal casinos, on the other hand, are approved by a separate process under federal law.

The Mashpee qualify for the federal process because they never agreed to subject reservation land to state law, according to Patrick’s office.

The Mashpee, who earned federal recognition in 2007, have other legal challenges. Most importantly, they do not yet have a reservation where they could legally build a tribal casino. The tribe has begun the process to win the right to host gambling in Taunton, by applying to the federal government to have the proposed casino site taken into trust for the tribe, which would essentially convert it to Indian land and make it eligible for tribal gambling. That process could take years and require court action or an act of Congress.

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The Aquinnah strongly dispute that they gave up the right to pursue a tribal casino. The tribe often cites a 1997 memo from the US Department of the Interior, issued when the tribe was pursuing a high-stakes bingo hall in Fall River. The memo suggests that the tribe would be eligible to run the gambling hall if it could persuade the federal government to take the land into trust on its behalf.

“It is disappointing to learn that the state attorney general’s position has not changed despite the United States Department of the Interior’s express rejection of Massachusetts’s legal analysis,’’ said Andrews-Maltais. She added that courts “have come down consistent with Aquinnah’s position: [The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act], not state law, governs gaming on Aquinnah’s existing trust lands.’’

Lawyers for the state and the tribe met Tuesday to discuss the legal issues over the tribe’s casino pursuit. Andrews-Maltais said the discussion was “frank and constructive.’’

“We are hopeful that formal negotiations will commence immediately,’’ she said. “Otherwise, we will pursue those legal remedies available to us.’’

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe declined to comment.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.