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Tribe opens KCK casino, discounts legal challenge

By David Twiddy
Kansas City, Kansas (AP) 1-08

It took 11 years, but the Oklahoma-based Wyandotte Nation finally opened its downtown 7th Street Casino during January.

Whether it stays open is still unknown as state officials continue to pursue a decade-long legal fight.

Standing before a packed house, Chief Leaford Bearskin conducted a pipe ceremony and then joined Mayor Joe Reardon in cutting the ribbon and welcoming guests into the former Masonic lodge that has undergone a $20 million facelift into a 1920s-themed speakeasy.

“Being here tonight, it makes me feel like I’m coming home,” Bearskin told the crowd, noting the tribe first came to Kansas in 1843.

“We want to welcome you to our casino,” he said, adding with a smile, “When you come – bring money.”

The nation opened a more-limited casino on the site in 2004, housed in a series of mobile homes. That operation was raided and quickly closed by state and local law enforcement, claiming the tribe had no right to offer gambling on the property.

While a federal appeals court sided with the Wyandotte Nation last fall, state officials said Thursday they still believe the casino is illegal.

“We think it’s somewhat irresponsible to be opening this casino when there are questions that are still pending on the legality of the gambling operation,” said Mike Leitch, deputy Kansas attorney general for civil litigation.

The tribe’s attorney, David McCullough, has denied that a legal challenge is still pending.

But Thursday was a night to celebrate for tribal members who have planned a casino for the site since buying the former Scottish Rite temple and surrounding half-acre of land in 1996.

“We’re very glad to get to this point,” said Second Chief Billy Friend. “It’s been very frustrating. We feel like we’ve always followed the rules and we were the only ones doing that. It was very satisfying.”

The three-story building, which also includes a steakhouse, features around 400 Class II wagering games, which play like slot machines but pit players against each other in networks based on bingo odds.

The Class II is a limitation of federal Indian gaming laws, but Friend said the tribe has sought formal negotiations with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for a compact that would allow regular Class III slot machines and table games. Sebelius has said she wouldn’t consider the compact until the legal issues are resolved.

The state contends that the money the tribe used to buy the land wasn’t allowed for such purposes, disqualifying the land for a casino.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October ruled that a legal challenge of the casino came after the land had been placed into trust by the federal government on behalf of the tribe, thereby insulating the government from the state’s lawsuit and leaving the federal courts with no jurisdiction. Because of that, the three-judge panel agreed with the Justice Department and dismissed the case.

However, two of the three panel members also recommended that the state restart its legal challenge, which the attorney general’s office is attempting. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled for that motion.