The strange case of the casino, the Senate leader and the defense bill

Schumer-Graham amendment to NDAA is part of a long history of congressional efforts on behalf of the Catawba Indian Nation

The annual defense policy bill signed into law last month authorized billions of dollars for a vast array of Pentagon programs. It also did something else: It granted a South Carolina-based Native American tribe permission to open a casino in North Carolina.

The unusual provision was shepherded by an even more unlikely ally — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Each year since 1961, Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a vast piece of legislation that authorized $768 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal 2022.

The measure’s size and consistent enactment has also turned it into a catchall for lawmakers’ legislative priorities that might not otherwise get a vote. And some of those priorities stray far afield from national security matters.

A striking example is the casino amendment, sponsored by Schumer and an odd bedfellow for the New York Democrat, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. Its inclusion in the defense law is an example of two Washington truisms: that provisions lawmakers favor hitch rides on moving vehicles, no matter how unrelated, and that money and influence can get the attention of Congress.

Big money is at stake for the Catawba Indian Nation and the developers it worked with to build and run the $273 million, 14,700-square-foot casino in Kings Mountain, N.C., about 35 miles from the tribe’s reservation near the city of Rock Hill, S.C.

In recent years, advocates of the casino made campaign contributions to lawmakers who championed it in Congress and spent handsomely on lobbyists with connections on Capitol Hill.

Often, unrelated provisions inserted in the defense bill are uncontroversial. Ahead of the fiscal 2022 defense bill, lawmakers submitted hundreds of amendments on topics ranging from chimpanzee relocation to the sustainability of feeding troops vegetable-based protein.

The case of the Catawba tribe casino, however, stands out.

For the Catawba, the inclusion of the amendment is the product of a nearly decadelong effort to exempt themselves from a 1993 settlement with the U.S. government that, in exchange for federal recognition, subjected the tribe to South Carolina’s state gambling laws, rather than the more flexible federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows tribes to conduct types of gambling that individual states might not otherwise allow. In the case of South Carolina, Native American-run casinos would not be able to offer table games and slot machines.

The tribe’s campaign to disentangle itself from South Carolina’s stricter laws garnered attention in 2018 when the Department of the Interior rejected the Catawba Nation’s bid to build a casino in Kings Mountain, N.C., just across the South Carolina border.

Legislation proposed

Graham and Schumer’s amendment to the defense bill is also part of a long history of congressional attempts to authorize the Catawba Nation’s casino.

In March 2019, Graham introduced the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act, which would have permitted the Catawba Nation to conduct gambling in North Carolina. The measure was never considered by the full Senate, but in March 2020 the Department of the Interior reversed its earlier decision and made some North Carolina land available to the tribe.

Five days after the Department of the Interior’s reversal, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a North Carolina-based tribe that operates two casinos in the state, sued the Catawba and the Interior Department in federal court to try to stop the new casino, which would compete with its own.

The suit claimed political pressure from Wallace Cheves, a GOP megadonor, developer and managing partner of Skyboat Gaming, a company formed in 2009 to “develop gaming opportunities” for the Catawba Indian Nation, prompted the government to clear the way for the casino without congressional approval.

Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples during a September 2020 hearing that the Catawba Nation’s off-reservation casino deal gives the tribal gambling industry “a black eye” and that Congress should allow the federal courts to decide the outcome of the dispute.

But Schumer and Graham’s amendment nullifies the legal proceedings.

“We are disappointed to not be granted the ability to defend our position in the courtroom,” Sneed said in the statement released after the defense bill’s passage.

Campaign contributions

Two months before the Department of the Interior reversed its decision and allowed the Catawba to take North Carolina land into trust, Cheves, who listed Skyboat Gaming as his employer on the filings, donated $125,000 to the Trump Victory PAC, according to FEC filings.

After the reversal, Cheves continued to donate, sending the former president’s PAC $11,200 in August 2020 and $100,000 to the Trump-Graham Majority Fund in May 2021.

Cheves also donated to key members of Congress. Cheves gave a total of $8,400 toward Graham’s Senate reelection bids in 2017 and 2020 (and $5,400 to Graham’s failed 2016 presidential campaign).

Between 2015 and 2016, Cheves gave $16,400 in support of electing North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, and $15,500 toward the election of North Carolina’s other Republican senator, Thom Tillis.

In March 2019, Burr and Tillis co-sponsored Graham’s Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act bill. Three months later, Cheves sent the Tillis and Colleagues Victory Committee a check for $55,900.

Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis, told CQ Roll Call that donations “never have and never will have an impact on Senator Tillis’ support for legislation.”

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