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Ho-Chunk Nation responds to lawsuit challenging casino expansion

A rendering of the proposed $33 million Ho-Chunk expansion in Wittenberg.

Ho-Chunk Nation

The Ho-Chunk Nation issued a sharply worded rebuke Thursday to a lawsuit seeking to block its casino expansion in Shawano County, saying the dispute is damaging tribal relations in the state.

In a letter to the Stockbridge-Munsee band, which could lose millions in revenue to the expanding Ho-Chunk Wittenberg casino east of Wausau, Ho-Chunk special counsel Lester Marston demanded that the tribe drop its “frivolous lawsuit.”

“(The Band’s campaign to block the expansion) has damaged inter-tribal relations and tribal solidarity,” Marston wrote. “At the same time, it has given ammunition to opponents of Indian gaming who seek to portray tribal gaming as unfair, dishonest and contrary to the interests of the citizens of Wisconsin.”

Megan Hakes, a spokeswoman for the Stockbridge-Munsee said in response to the letter the tribe has not changed its position, and continues to move forward with the lawsuit in order to seek a fair resolution.

The Stockbridge-Munsee filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday against the Ho-Chunk, Gov. Scott Walker and the state. The tribe also has threatened to withhold nearly $1 million in gambling revenues due to the state by June 30.

The actions come after months of trying to persuade the Walker administration to interpret its Indian gaming compact with the Ho-Chunk as not allowing the Wittenberg expansion because it is designated as an ancillary gaming site, which historically meant it couldn’t include table games, hotel or restaurant.

That changed in 2003 when Gov. Jim Doyle renegotiated the compacts. The Walker administration said the current compact allows gambling to cover up to half of the Wittenberg location before it is no longer ancillary.

Last year, the Ho-Chunk broke ground on a $33 million expansion that will increase the number of slot machines from 506 to 778, add an area with high-limit gaming and 10 table games, and construct an 86-room hotel and 84-seat restaurant and bar. It is scheduled to be completed this year.

The lawsuit seeks to block the expansion from moving forward until the dispute is resolved.

“That clearly does not match the definition of an ancillary gaming facility, and former Department of Administration officials are on record saying as much,” Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Council president Shannon Holsey said in a statement. “We had hoped that Governor Walker and this Administration would heed our and other tribes’ requests for fair compact enforcement so that this matter could be resolved without litigation, but we now have no other option.”

The Ho-Chunk countered that it has never interfered with the Stockbridge-Munsee’s sovereign activities, the expansion complies with its gaming compact, the tribes have sovereign immunity from lawsuits, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was enacted after the Wittenberg site was placed into trust on behalf of the Ho-Chunk.

Marston also noted that if the lawsuit is dismissed, the Ho-Chunk could recoup legal fees at a rate of $600 per hour.

“The fact that the Wittenberg Project might reduce the market share of the North Star Mohican Casino Resort is simply a reality of a highly competitive gaming market,” Marston wrote. “Rather than engaging in futile efforts to convince State officials that the Wittenberg Project is in violation of the Nation’s Compact and to damage the Nation’s reputation, the Band should invest its resources in making its gaming facility more competitive and, therefore, more profitable.”


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.