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Tribe files lawsuit to block casino expansion in Shawano County

The Stockbridge-Munsee tribe is suing the state and the Ho-Chunk Nation over its casino expansion in Wittenberg.

JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

A Wisconsin Indian tribe that has threatened to withhold nearly $1 million from the state because of a dispute over another tribe’s casino expansion in Shawano County filed a lawsuit Wednesday to block the expansion.

The Stockbridge-Munsee filed the federal lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and the Ho-Chunk Nation, which is expanding its once-limited gambling facility east of Wausau.

The lawsuit seeks several potential remedies to the dispute, including declaring the state in violation of the Stockbridge-Munsee compact because it is not protecting the tribe’s interests and rights in not having another tribe develop a class III gambling facility near its only casino.

The tribe also asks a federal judge to order a preliminary injunction blocking the Ho-Chunk Wittenberg casino expansion until the lawsuit is resolved.

The lawsuit is the latest escalation in the dispute over the Wittenberg facility, which prior to the renegotiation of tribal gaming compacts in 2003 wasn’t allowed to include a restaurant, hotel or table games.

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 expected to be completed this year, according to the Ho-Chunk.

The Ho-Chunk Wittenberg facility is closer to Wausau than the Stockbridge-Munsee’s only casino, North Star Mohican Casino Resort, and the tribe worries the competition will negatively affect its revenues, which fund a large share of its government services. A study commissioned by the Stockbridge-Munsee estimated the lost revenue would be $22 million, or 37 percent of its Bowler casino.

After the Stockbridge-Munsee objected to the Ho-Chunk’s expansion plans last fall, the state Department of Administration reviewed the compacts and determined the expansion wasn’t a violation.

In a Feb. 2 letter, DOA Secretary Scott Neitzel wrote the tribe has the ability to file a lawsuit to resolve disputes over the state compacts.

Last month the tribe sent a letter informing the state it would withhold a $923,000 payment due by June 30 because of the dispute and asked to initiate a dispute resolution process. On March 22, the state responded, asking for a meeting with the tribe’s lawyers. A Stockbridge-Munsee spokeswoman said a meeting took place but no resolution was reached, thus resulting in the lawsuit.

DOA spokesman Steve Michels said Wednesday the state has been “consistent and clear in honoring the compacts with all of the Tribes in Wisconsin.”

“Under the terms of the Ho-Chunk Compact, as amended in 2003 by the Doyle Administration, the Ho-Chunk are authorized to conduct gaming in Wittenberg,” Michels said.

The Ho-Chunk, which is also expanding its casinos in the Wisconsin Dells and Black River Falls, responded in a statement saying “the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe has spread false information and continues to litigate its opposition to the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Wittenberg improvement and expansion project in the media.”

“We are prepared to safeguard our interests and are confident we’ll be successful in court and finally be able to resolve this issue,” said Ho-Chunk Nation President Wilfrid Cleveland.

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