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Shingle Springs casino plan vexes lawmakers

Gregory Crofton

California lawmakers are requesting to meet this week with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff regarding construction of a casino-hotel in Shingle Springs, with the hope the governor will stop the project.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, and Sen. Thomas “Rico” Oller, R-San Andreas, say they oppose the casino for a number of reasons, including traffic-induced air quality concerns and what they say is a conflict of interest involving Caltrans.

The casino would require approval of an interchange off Highway 50 between Cameron Park and Placerville. The proposal for the offramp was sent back in December by a Sacramento judge for another air quality study.

The perceived conflict regarding Caltrans is based on the fact that the agency’s interests are being represented by an attorney who also represents the interests of the Shingle Springs’ Miwok Tribe, which has requested approval for the interchange.

Caltrans is in charge of preparing a report that describes the environmental impact of the interchange. It has begun working to satisfy the judge’s request for more information, according to Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger.

Lakes Entertainment is the primary financial backer of the project. The gaming company issued a press release about it on its Web site Wednesday.

“We are extremely pleased with the court’s decision, which puts the tribe in the favorable position to begin construction of the interchange after Caltrans gathers the necessary information, makes a favorable determination on the one remaining issue, and the court approves Caltrans’ ruling,” said Lyle Berman, chairman of Lakes Entertainment, in a press release.

Caltrans said its being represented by Lakes’ attorney does not present a conflict because it is acting in the best interest of the state.

“It was the department’s determination that it was in state’s best interest to tender the defense of this lawsuit to the real parties of interest – the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe,” said Dinger. “We also want to add that the state did retain the right to approve all arguments and pleadings.”

Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Citrus Heights, has not taken a position on the project. But he was the one who requested a meeting with the governor’s legal affairs staff on behalf of El Dorado County Supervisor Dave Solaro, Leslie and Oller.

Leslie and Oller got involved after Ed Knapp, an attorney representing El Dorado County, went to Sacramento on Thursday and told officials about the perceived conflict of interest.

“How is one lawyer going to negotiate with itself?” Knapp said. “I think it is illegal. They need to make discretionary decisions. Who is going to make those decisions? I have been a lawyer for 28 years, and I’m shocked how Caltrans is behaving.”

Leslie, who has been fighting the casino project for years, said he was outraged after he listened to Knapp.

“I don’t think there is any question about a conflict of interest,” Leslie said.

Particularly frustrating, he said, is that Caltrans used traffic data from 1993 and relied on traffic models created for casinos in Louisiana as part of its air quality impact report.

Leslie said he also opposes the project because it is slated for a rural area, to which water would have to be trucked in. The casino would also have a tremendous economic impact on gaming at South Shore.

“An independent group should be evaluating this,” Leslie said. “Somehow, the skids have been greased and greased at the federal level and at the state level.”

The Shingle Springs’ Miwoks call the county’s claim of a conflict of interest a last-ditch effort to stop the project.

“The tribe has done everything by the book and followed Caltrans’ and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s procedure and requests,” said tribal chairman Nicholas Fonseca, in a statement. “Caltrans has fully approved the legal team, and to our knowledge it is quite common for the other benefactors of road projects to pay for legal challenges, just as we are doing.”

Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com