Federal judge rejects challenge against EG casino land trust
Elk Grove Citizen
By Lance Armstrong - Citizen Staff Writer
A federal judge on Feb. 28 denied a lawsuit that attempted to stop land from being placed into a federal trust for the Wilton Rancheria’s proposed Elk Grove casino-resort.
Wilton Rancheria plans to build a $400 million casino near Kammerer Road and Highway 99’s Grant Line Road exit.
“We are pleased that the court rejected this desperate attempt by special interests and their high-priced law firms to use the legal system to try to stifle competition,” Wilton Rancheria’s chairman, Raymond Hitchcock said in a press statement.
Three Elk Grove residents and Stand Up for California!, a watchdog group that focuses on gambling issues, filed the lawsuit in January 2017.
They argued that Larry Roberts, the principal deputy assistant of the secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), was unauthorized to issue the land-into-trust decision for the Wilton Rancheria tribe’s proposed casino-resort.
They contended that the decision could only be made by the interior secretary or assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, a position that was then vacant. Roberts held his BIA position during the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration in early 2017.
In announcing his Feb. 28 opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden wrote that Stand Up for California! had either misunderstood or misread federal regulations regarding Roberts’ authority to make that decision.
“This case involves a uniquely Washingtonian question: When can a federal employee act in the place of an absent agency or unit head?” he wrote. “This issue becomes acute during presidential transitions, when thousands of senior political appointees exit the government, often leaving their positions vacant for months or even years.”
Roberts made his record of decision on Jan. 19, 2017. Twenty-two days later, the Department of the Interior placed 35.9 acres of Elk Grove land into federal trust for the Wilton Rancheria.
Hitchcock expressed his satisfaction with McFadden’s recent decision on the land-into-trust issue.
“I’m very excited of the outcome,” he said. “It just solidifies what I’ve known all along, in that the land is in trust and the decision is final.”
Hitchcock referred to McFadden’s decision as “another big step in the right direction” for having the casino-resort constructed.
The tribe continues to maintain their plan to either break ground or begin demolition for this proposed project this spring or summer.
Hitchcock said that in a “best-case scenario,” the tribe could open the casino-resort in June 2020.
Cheryl Schmit, director of the Stand Up group, responded to McFadden’s decision.
“The case is far from over, and we’ll be before the same judge again,” she said. “So, there’s no need for anybody to celebrate or be discouraged at this point in time. There’s still a long way to go.
“We’re going to amend our brief and file on all the merits of our case, including the one that just got denied.”
The Stand Up group and the three Elk Grove residents – Patty Johnson, Joe Teixeira and Lynn Wheat – amended their case last August to file only one claim on the alleged violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998.
Hitchcock commented on lawsuits filed against the proposed casino-resort project.
“They find anything that they can to slap frivolous lawsuits against the tribe,” he said. “It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend these court cases that try to slow our ability to be a sovereign government and have an economic development.”