Business & Real Estate

Lawsuit against Wilton Rancheria dismissed as casino plans 2019 start to construction

A conceptual drawing of the Wilton Rancheria casino planned for Elk Grove near Highway 99.
A conceptual drawing of the Wilton Rancheria casino planned for Elk Grove near Highway 99.

Ano ther piece has fallen in place for construction to begin as early as this year on the Wilton Rancheria casino, a half-billion-dollar project that has faced several legal battles since plans were first conceived in 2013.

A federal judge last week tossed out a lawsuit by an activist group that sought to halt development of the Elk Grove casino resort, as first reported Friday by the Sacramento Business Journal.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in a Jan. 16 filing said Stand Up for California, which focuses on the state’s gambling industry, could not access documents it requested, which the group alleges would show inappropriate contact between tribal leaders and the U.S. Department of Interior. Those documents are protected by attorney-client privilege, the judge held.

McFadden’s filing says Stand Up’s suit relies on two emails from attorneys within the Interior Department solicitor’s office to support its call for a temporary restraining order that would stop development of the casino on the grounds the attorneys had improperly discussed details of litigation related to the casino.

“But neither email reveals a voluntary disclosure by the Department of attorney advice about its litigation strategy,” the memorandum order reads. “Rather, the emails appear to show the Department asking about the Tribe’s positions on the TRO and preliminary injunction. And it is common for parties involved in a litigation, even opposing parties, to discuss their litigation postures without revealing confidential attorney-client information.”

Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond Hitchcock told The Bee on Friday that McFadden’s ruling won’t mean much, practically speaking, for the casino construction timeline, but it is a relief.

“It’s just another small victory in leading through this frivolous litigation,” Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock called Stand Up’s claims “malicious and false” and said the organization tried to make a big deal out of something small.

“They thought they could open a bigger door to misconduct by the government, but the judge ruled in our favor,” he said.

However, Stand Up for California Director Cheryl Schmit in an emailed statement said: “This case is far from over.”

Schmit said that last May, citizens filed two motions she says forced the government “to log the over 1,000 documents it tried to withhold from the administrative record.”

“The Tribe is touting the Court’s denial of the citizens’ extraordinary request to override attorney-client and deliberative privileges as a major victory, when in fact the citizens have succeeded in forcing the production of hundreds of records that document serious problems with the decision,” Schmit wrote.

Schmit also said that these documents “show that the Tribe pressured the government to cut corners and the government willingly agreed, working around the clock to issue a decision that normally takes 15 months in less than two days.”

Stand Up, based in Penryn, was established 1996. It has lobbied against bills “that expand the scope and intensity of gambling without comprehensive regulation,” its website says.

Stand Up filed another lawsuit in 2017 seeking to delay the Wilton casino. That suit questioned the validity of a land trust given by the federal government because it was approved by an interim Interior Department official in January 2017 during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. The suit was dismissed by McFadden in 2018.

Last week, the city of Elk Grove announced that Howard Hughes Corp. would demolish the infamous “ghost mall” development — a decade-old, unfinished shopping mall adjacent to Wilton Rancheria’s planned site on Highway 99 near Grant Line Road.

Hitchcock said last week that construction would begin sometime in 2019 regardless of what happens at the ghost mall. It is still on track for a 2019 ground-breaking, he said Thursday.

Hitchcock did, however, call the failed shopping center a “bad eyesore.”

Elk Grove’s so-called “ghost mall” remains incomplete, Thursday, December 27, 2018, as construction of the adjacent Wilton Rancheria casino has yet to begin.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee