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Long fight looms as lower court voids New York gaming compact

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ALBANY, N.Y. - Anti-Indian forces are celebrating after a state lower court ruling that New York's gaming compacts are invalid - Donald Trump was "jubilant," said one report. Lawyers for American Indians say the joy is premature.

A sweeping decision April 10 in the state's Supreme Court-Trial Section here, actually the lowest level of the judicial system, ruled all of the tribal-state gaming compacts "void and unenforceable" because they were negotiated only with the governor and not with the Legislature as well. However, legal experts say the impact on existing casinos would be minimal.

In a brief statement, the Oneida Indian Nation said its compact "remains valid, and the 3,000 jobs it has helped create remain secure." It said it expected "to continue on a course to add more jobs and expand the other economic benefits created in the region by Turning Stone Casino Resort."

John Harte, general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Association, said the ultimate result for Turning Stone and the Akwesasne Mohawk casino on the St. Regis reservation could be to end any state role in supervision. Contrary to the statements of anti-casino groups and some local officials, the casinos would remain open, subject only to federal regulation.

The ruling dealt a blow to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, which just a week earlier unveiled details of a major casino-resort it planned to build with Park Place Entertainment Inc. in the Catskill mountains far to the south of its reservation on the Canadian border.

As news of the ruling came down, state newspapers reported that State Police would place the St. Regis reservation under a virtual siege to prevent protests of a summit in Quebec City, Quebec.

Under the ruling, the off-reservation project would require consent from the New York Legislature, a prospect that delighted Donald Trump, the Atlantic City casino mogul. He told the New York Post, "We've spent a lot of time, effort and money, and this is a total vindication that we were right." Trump pushed the suit through his personal lawyer Jay Goldberg and, as revealed in a state investigation last year, funneled financial support to plaintiffs through a front organization.

Trump's fight against the Mohawk casino last year reportedly cost him more than $1 million, much of it to support a state bill requiring legislative approval for gaming compacts. Reports agree his purpose was to prevent an American Indian casino north of New York City from competing with his troubled Atlantic City holdings. A series of newspaper ads depicting the St. Regis Tribal Council as criminals, led to a record $250,000 fine for violations of the state lobbying law.

The ruling by Judge Joseph C. Teresi accepted the argument the New York Constitution doesn't give the governor sole power to "bind the State to a Tribal-State Gaming Compact without specific legislative approval." The 10-page opinion relied heavily on similar cases in New Mexico, Kansas, Michigan and Rhode Island, and a ruling by New York state's Appellate Division, which overturned a previous ruling by Judge Teresi on a side issue and sent the case back to him.

The suit dealt with gaming compacts former Gov. Mario Cuomo negotiated with the St. Regis Mohawks and the Oneida Indian Nation in 1993. Current Gov. George Pataki signed an amendment in 1999 to last one year, allowing the casino on the St. Regis reservation to offer "electronic video gaming devices."

Defendants are Pataki and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, sued by several state legislators, two unincorporated anti-casino groups and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. A spokesman for the governor said the state would appeal "quickly" and ask for a stay of the decision.

Although neither casino-owning tribes was named as a defendant, their lawyers are following it closely. "We are studying the decision and considering our options," said Brad Westerman, attorney for the St. Regis Mohawks.

The lawyers add it was entirely possible the Legislature would agree to a compact, though the rematch with Trump could be fierce and costly. "When you're Mohawk, or any other nation, you don't expect anything to be easy." Westerman said.

Officials from economically depressed Sullivan County denounce Trump for dashing their hopes for recovery.

If the state refuses a compact, tribes could have recourse to the secretary of the Interior under the provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA). A 1996 Supreme Court decision threw out the provision allowing tribes to sue a state to get a compact. A later case prevented states from interfering with casinos on tribal land, in the absence of a compact.

If events do trigger this last ruling, the 1999 Florida vs. Seminole Tribe, the New York State Wagering Board would no longer have authority to approve casino employees or station gaming inspectors on casino floors. "If the compact is invalid, the state has no authority to regulate the tribe," said John Harte of NIGA. "The sole regulatory authority is the National Indian Gaming Commission and the federal government."

It was unclear what impact Teresi's ruling might have on other state-tribal agreements, although some tribal officials warned that it could be devastating.

"For the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, who have numerous agreements with the state, they would be null and void and unenforceable," said tribal council spokeswoman Rowena General. "You really have to question the impact of such an irresponsible decision."

Days after the ruling, the New York State police let it be known they would step up patrols on the St. Regis reservation boundaries in the buildup to a weekend meeting of government leaders in Quebec City. The meeting, to start work on a free trade zone for both Americas, was expected to attract a broad range of protest groups. As Canada tightened its border controls, Mohawk activist Shawn Brant announced plans to escort protesters through Akwesasne territory which spans the international boundary.

All of the frequently feuding Mohawk authorities united against the idea. After a two-night meeting, the Mohawk Warrior Society reportedly withdrew support. At a public meeting on the Canadian side, Grand Chief Mike Mitchell of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, said that his side of the International Bridge would be patrolled by Mohawk police.

"We're not going to have 10,000 non-Mohawk police out there with shields and sticks. We're not going to have non-Natives taking over the bridge."