The Catawba Indian Nation will have a gambling operation up and running by next week, when a judge hears their request for the court to stop law enforcement from seizing machines and arresting tribal members, according to a legal memo filed Friday.
Just what that gambling operation will look like or when it will take shape is unclear, the tribe’s lawyer, Wally Fayssoux of Greenville, said Monday.
The move puts the Catawbas one step closer to a legal showdown with the state and Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, who the tribe sued last month over the right to gamble on the reservation, east of Rock Hill along the Catawba River.
The tribe plans to build a casino and two hotels on the reservation. The expected $340 million investment in the first three years of development would be an economic boon to the county, according to tribal leaders and an economic-impact study the tribe comissioned.
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Construction would start next year and finish in 2014, and employ almost 4,000 people during construction and operation.
During construction, the tribe plans to open temporary gambling facilities, Fayssoux said. The tribe is not currently operating gambling machines on site, he said.
“There’s no gaming going on on the reservation at all. Right now we’re getting ready,” he said. “The tribe has been 100 percent up front and open with law enforcement the entire time. No one’s tried to sneak a machine in. No one has tried to turn a machine on in the dead of night. We’ve been completely up front.”
At the Feb. 23 hearing, a judge will decide whether to grant the tribe temporary relief, preventing authorities from taking action against the tribe until the lawsuit is settled.
The Catawbas, the state’s only federally recognized tribe, claim it’s their right to open a casino and allow gambling on the reservation. That right comes from a 1993 land settlement with the state and federal governments, they say.
The settlement states the tribe may permit on the reservation “video poker or similar electronic play devices to the same extent that the devices are authorized by state law.”
In the lawsuit, the tribe alleges that, after the settlement agreement, state laws enacted in 2005 to allow casino boat gambling off the Charleston coast also give the tribe the right to have the same type of gambling on the reservation.
State Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill disagrees with the tribe’s argument. Hayes, who was instrumental in the 1993 settlement, says the lawsuit has no merit because the tribe isn’t asking to gamble in international waters.
The tribe’s argument is a “pretty major departure” from state law and the settlement agreement, Hayes said Monday. “I will be surprised if the court enjoins the law while the case is pending,” he said.
Catawba Indian Chief Bill Harris, the S.C. attorney general’s office and SLED could not be reached for comment Monday.
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, who has been a strong opponent of gambling in York County, wasn’t available directly for comment Monday.
Lt. Mike Baker said the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t comment on the Catawbas’ plans to have a facility in operation by next week.
Baker said it would be inappropriate to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, but he did say the Sheriff’s Office would investigate any lead that illegal gambling was taking place in the county.
The state has until Friday to respond before the Feb. 23 hearing on the temporary injunction. Any court hearings on the merits of the case will follow, Fayssoux said.