Cherokee County sues federal agency over Oklahoma casino

Columbus, Kansas (AP) 3-08

The Cherokee County Commission is suing the U.S. Interior Department to block construction of an Oklahoma Indian tribe’s casino, and the effort is being financed by a developer that hopes to build a casino in Kansas.

The commission backs a competing proposal by Penn National Gaming Inc. to build a $295 million resort casino just across the border, near the only Kansas exit for Interstate 44. Penn National is reimbursing the county for its expenses.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, alleges that the department didn’t follow its own rules or federal law when it put land into trust for the Quapaw Tribe. The decision allows the tribe to build its casino on that land.

Penn National’s proposed casino would generate revenues for the state and local governments.

“Our main goal is to protect the interests of the citizens of Cherokee County,” Cherokee County Commissioner Rodney Edmondson told The Joplin, Mo., Globe.

But John Berrey, chairman of the tribe’s business committee, said it plans to continue construction. He called the lawsuit “totally incorrect.”

“I think the lawsuit proves the commissioners of Cherokee County are not concerned with the welfare of the Quapaw Tribe or of the people we’re going to employ,” he said.

Interior Department spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.

The tribe’s $200 million complex would be off I-44 where Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri meet. The casino is scheduled to open in July, with a 12-story hotel expected to open in the fall. The site is so close to the Kansas border that the complex’s parking lot would be in Cherokee County.

Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn National is months – and perhaps several years – farther away from opening its proposed casino.

The company is the only developer competing for a contract with the Kansas Lottery to build and operate a state-owned casino in southeast Kansas, but the process of obtaining it could take until mid-May. Also, the Kansas Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether the law allowing the casino is constitutional.

Berrey said it’s obvious to him that the county commissioners are doing the bidding of Penn National.

But Edmondson said the arrangement in which the company reimburses the county’s expenses is no secret and that the lawsuit raises legitimate questions.

The lawsuit alleges that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne put land in trust for the tribe without conducting any environmental review of the tribe’s plans, as required by law. It also alleges that Kempthorne didn’t provide adequate public notice of his decision.