KINGS MOUNTAIN, N.C. — Construction on a new casino outside Charlotte could be delayed as federal investigators look into who is benefiting from the Catawba Two Kings Casino.

The people benefiting include the brother of South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn and the husband of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Haley also served as ambassador to the United Nations under Donald Trump.

The Catawba have been working for decades to get permission to open a tribal casino, first in South Carolina and then turning their attention to North Carolina. The effort required congressional action and faced several legal challenges before getting the green light from the Trump administration in 2020.

The vision for Two Kings Casino is for a large, modern casino and resort on the site just off Interstate 85, less than 40 minutes from Uptown Charlotte. In the meantime, the casino is operating out of a temporary building, a long stretch of trailers with about 1,000 gaming machines, according to the tribe.

The casino is open in a temporary 30,000-square-foot building just off Interstate 85, about 35 minutes from Uptown Charlotte.

Decades in the making

The investigation by the National Indian Gaming Commission is the latest in a long history of speed bumps for the Catawba casino.

Almost 30 years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993. The federal law recognized the tribe, settled land claims and gave the Catawba permission to open a casino, but only if state officials agreed.

The Catawba reservation is southeast of the casino site, with two sections along the Catawba River near Rock Hill, South Carolina. But despite receiving federal recognition, South Carolina officials (including Haley, the former governor) opposed allowing the tribe to build a casino.

In 2013, the Catawba turned their attention to North Carolina, where the Cherokee already operated a casino in the western corner of the state.

It took years for the Catawba to get the land and permission to build a new casino just over the border in North Carolina, about 45 miles from their reservation. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham got involved, pushing legislation through Congress, and the Interior Department gave final approval to the project in 2020.

The casino also faced lawsuits from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. The lawsuit claimed the Catawba casino was actually on the Cherokee’s historic land.

But Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman, filed the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act. That bill ended up being wrapped into a defense budget bill that was signed into law in December, ending the Cherokee’s lawsuit over the casino.

“These are the lands of not just our ancestors, but also the hundreds of Catawba citizens residing there today,” Catawba Chief Bill Harris said when the bill passed. “Make no mistake, this legislation means more people will have good paying jobs, more kids will have a better education and more people will have better housing and health care. That’s what this bill really means.”

Federal investigation

The National Indian Gaming Commission this week confirmed that it is investigating the Catawba casino project. But a spokesperson for the commission would not give any further details.

The Wall Street Journal reports the investigation has to do with stakes in one company associated with the casino. Kings Mountain Equipment Supply has a contract to supply half of the gaming machines at the casino and will earn 20% of the profit from those machines, according to the Journal.

The newspaper said John Clyburn, brother of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, and Michael Haley, husband of the former South Carolina governor, both received shares in the company. Both own less than 1% of the company, the Journal reported.

There are federal rules about how much people who are not associated with the tribe can make off tribal casinos.

How do they respond

John Clyburn told the Journal that he had consulted on the casino project. A spokeswoman for Rep. Clyburn told Spectrum News 1 the congressman was out of the country and not available for comment.

Michael Haley consulted on security at the casino, taking shares in the company as payment, the newspaper reported.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said in a statement that the tribe is cooperating with the investigation.

“To the extent that the NIGC has identified areas of concern in its review, we have made corrections or are now actively engaged in resolving those concerns with them,” Harris said in a statement to Spectrum News 1.

Temporary casino

A new casino and resort for Kings Mountain is still years away. But in the meantime, a temporary structure stands just off Exit 5 on I-85.

The long, low-slung building resembles a series of trailers, painted a red reminiscent of a rural barn. A large parking lot surrounds the building.

Inside, the temporary casino feels like a long hall, filled with the vibrant colors and sounds of slot machines and other gaming machines. Opened in July 2021, it’s already proved to be a popular spot, attracting hundreds of people even on a weeknight.

There are about 1,000 gaming machines in the 30,000-square-foot temporary casino, according to the tribe.

Construction delays

The Catawba Nation has yet to break ground on the permanent casino. The timetable is still up in the air.

The next phase is expected to be construction on a permanent casino, envisioned to be a 195,000-square-foot complex with a big gaming floor, including machines and table games. After the casino is built, the Catawba say they plan to build a 1,500-room hotel on the site.

“The Catawba Nation and its consultants are continuing planning work on the permanent casino resort project, which will be announced at a later date. Our initial casino is just the first step in what will evolve over time to become the Charlotte region’s premier casino resort,” according to the casino. 

The tribe is working on two infrastructure projects now before construction can begin: adding new sewer lines and doubling the size of a bridge over I-85. 

“Plans for the full casino resort are being finalized and necessary agreements are undergoing a thorough review by the National Indian Gaming Commission,” said Trent Troxel, vice president of the Catawba Nation Gaming Authority. A timetable for construction is anticipated to be announced later."