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Brnovich: Opening Of West Valley Casino Would Set 'Terrible Precedent'

casino rendering
(Photo courtesy of the Tohono O’odham Nation)
Tohono O'odham Nation officials say construction of the Desert Diamond Casino – West Valley near 95th and Northern avenues is on schedule. The casino will open as a Class II facility instead of a Class III.

While a federal judge has denied the Tohono O’odham Nation’s request for an injunction against state officials, the larger question of whether the state must certify a casino near Glendale has yet to be decided.

The Nation has sued the state in federal court over its refusal to license the Desert Diamond Casino – West Valley near 95th and Northern avenues. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said there is no telling how long the legal battle could continue.

But the Nation has said construction of the $200 million facility is on schedule to be completed this year. It has also said that if the state won’t license the casino, it will open it under a Class II designation instead of a Class III.

Class II casinos are federally regulated and offer bingo. Class III casinos are state certified with traditional slot machines and Las Vegas-style games.

Brnovich used to head the state Department of Gaming. He said opening a Class II casino would circumvent state law and unlock a Pandora’s Box of questions about whether legal gambling could occur off tribal lands.   

“This sets a terrible precedent,” Brnovich said. “It undermines the promises that were made to Arizona voters that gaming would be limited and well-regulated.”

Brnovich added that technological advancements have blurred the line between the types of casinos.

“You might have somebody drawing bingo balls in Oklahoma and there’s machines all over the country that are playing those instant bingo games where it almost looks and acts like a slot machine,” Brnovich said.

Brnovich and Gov. Doug Ducey had been named as defendants in the Nation’s federal lawsuit against the state. But the U.S. District Judge David Campbell ruled they have sovereign immunity and dismissed them from the case.

The Nation received good legal news Friday when the Arizona Court of Appeals quashed a bid by a Glendale neighborhood group to force the city council to reconsider its support for the casino.

Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Edward Manuel praised the appellate court's decision in a prepared statement. He accused an unnamed East Valley tribe of organizing and funding the effort against the deal between the Nation and Glendale.

“This is just the latest frivolous lawsuit designed to stop the Nation from bringing jobs and economic opportunity supported by Glendale and the West Valley public,” the statement said. “The Nation congratulates Glendale on this major victory, and we look forward to continuing our partnership as we prepare to open our project later this year.”

In a unanimous opinion, the judges rejected arguments by organizer Gary Hirsch that voters have the right to overturn both the council's resolution backing the casino as well as a deal it reached with the Tohono O'odham Nation last year to share in the profits.

Judge Michael Brown, writing for the court, said only "legislative acts" by the council can be placed on the ballot through referendum petitions. And he said neither action meets that test.

That deal provided for an immediate $500,000 payment to the city. And once gaming starts the city will get $1.4 million a year, increasing annually by 2 percent.

Hirsch had gathered enough signatures to put the question to Glendale voters before being turned away by the city clerk.

“It involves the loss of potential property tax, sales tax and other revenues to the city,” Hirsch said. “And the agreement settles for a paltry amount compared to the potential income and employment that would have been generated had this same piece of property been developed as originally intended.”

The support or opposition of the city likely has no impact on the federal lawsuit. But the official position of the city most affected by the facility could affect whether the U.S. Senate approves a House-passed measure which would deny the tribe the ability to operate gaming on the site until 2027.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.