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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Federal judge dismisses Kalispel suit challenging Spokane Tribe’s casino in Airway Heights

July 12, 2019 Updated Fri., July 12, 2019 at 10:28 p.m.

Lori Thomas plays a video gaming machine during the January 2018 grand opening of the Spokane Tribe Casino in Airway Heights. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Lori Thomas plays a video gaming machine during the January 2018 grand opening of the Spokane Tribe Casino in Airway Heights. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the government’s approval of the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ recently built casino in Airway Heights. The legal challenge was brought by the longtime casino-operating Kalispel Tribe and Spokane County.

U.S. District Court Judge Frem Nielsen approved a motion by attorneys representing the Spokane Tribe to end the lawsuit that was filed in 2017. In the same ruling, Nielsen denied legal requests to rule in favor of the Kalispel Tribe and Spokane County.

The Kalispel Tribe argued the U.S. Department of the Interior “violated the trust relationship with the Kalispel tribe,” Nielson wrote. “The federal government owes a duty of trust to all tribes.

“In this situation, the Spokane and Kalispel’s interests are not aligned,” he continued. “Consequently, since the department fulfilled its statutory duty to examine the benefits and harm to all effected parties, the department did not violate the trust relationship.”

The Spokane Tribe broke ground on the $40 million casino in 2016. It was the first phase of the tribe’s plan for a $400 million casino resort.

“We are thrilled,” said Scott Wheat, the lead attorney who represented the Spokane Tribe. “With the stakes so high … I felt on all sides, the case was well-argued. We are very pleased with the ruling.”

The new casino is located about 2 miles west of the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Resort & Casino, which opened in 2000. The Spokane Tribe has long considered the 145 acres of its new venture to be part of its aboriginal territory.

In contrast, the land where the Kalispel Tribe built Northern Quest was purchased in 1996 by the Interior Department, which then declared it part of the Kalispel Reservation.

Former Gov. Gary Locke approved the Kalispel casino to move forward in 1998, despite objections from Spokane Tribe officials who argued that Northern Quest would adversely affect its Two Rivers and Chewelah casinos, both located in Stevens County.

In June, Zachary Welcker, attorney for the Kalispel Tribe, argued that the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to take into consideration how the Spokane Tribe’s casino would adversely affect Northern Quest’s operations. He said the loss of revenue alone would be $43 million.

But Nielsen said the Bureau of Indian Affairs studied the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino for 10 years.

“The BIA squarely addressed Kalispel’s concerns regarding lost profits,” he wrote. “The department’s expert concluded that while the Kalispel may suffer in the short term, eventually the profits would rebound and both tribes would benefit.”

Reached Friday, Welcker directed comments to a Kalispel Tribe spokesperson who did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

On a separate legal argument, attorneys for Spokane County argued that the federal government’s consultation process was “legally insufficient” and that the BIA didn’t give enough consideration to the county’s complaint and that the new casino violated a Joint Land Use Study regarding new construction surrounding Fairchild Air Force Base.

But Nielsen found these arguments non-persuasive.

“The county argues that the department should have given the county’s objections ‘substantial weight,’” the opinion reads. “There is no basis in law that would afford more weight to the opinions of the county than those of the cities of Airway Heights and Spokane, or the governor of the state of Washington.”

As for concerns about Fairchild, Nielsen noted that the government sought feedback directly from Air Force officials. “The Air Force expressed no qualms about the proposed casino,” Nielsen wrote, noting that the Spokane Tribe agreed to restrict building height to 60 feet despite being permitted to build higher.

“Upon review of the record, the court concludes that the secretary’s decision is supported by substantial evidence,” Nielsen wrote.

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