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Mohawk Rift Continues in Trial of Four Charged With 'Illegal' Casino

A dispute between the elected government of the federally recognized St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and traditional Mohawks continues this month with a federal court jury trial against four men charged with operating an illegal casino and transporting, possessing and using gambling devices “within Indian Country,” according to court documents.

Anthony Laughing, Sr., 66, William Roger Jock, 52, and Thomas Angus Square, all Mohawk men who live in Akwesasne—the Mohawk territory that straddles the St. Lawrence River and borders New York state and Quebec and Ontario provinces—and Joseph Hight, 44, of Georgia face felony charges for running an alleged illegal casino, called Three Feathers Casino, at the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s reservation in Akwesasne. A fifth Mohawk defendant, James Gray, was named in the complaint, but never served. The complaint was filed in federal court last December by the Office of United States Attorney in Plattsburgh, New York. The federal prosecutors are U.S. State Attorneys Elizabeth Horsman and Miroslav Lovric. The trial began in early November in federal court in Albany, New York.

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The trial is the latest expression of an ongoing schism between the elected government of the federally recognized St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) and the traditional Men's Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse—Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne.

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Three Feathers Casino opened in the summer of 2011—without state or federal licensing or approval from the SRMT council—with 400 Class II bingo machines in a 55,000-square-foot building that had previously housed another unlicensed casino and lounge. The Men’s Council set up a gaming commission and operated Three Feathers by standards that met or exceeded those of the National Indian Gaming Commission, according to the casino’s spokesman at the time.

The SRMT’s Gaming Commission issued a cease and desist order to the Three Feathers Casino on January 27, 2012, ordering the facility to stop gaming operations and shut down. “Under Tribal Law, there are only two licensed gaming properties in Akwesasne,” former SRMT Chief Mark Garrow said at the time. “They are the Mohawk Bingo Palace and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. Any other gaming facilities are unlicensed and operating illegally.”

Federal prosecutors agree with the federally recognized council. The People of the Longhouse are not a federally recognized Indian Tribe independent of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and they were operating outside the provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the prosecutors said in court documents.

The four men were charged after federal investigators launched an undercover probe in coordination with the SRMT council and police department that culminated in a December 18, 2012, raid and arrests at the casino, which had shut its doors in September 2012.

The defendants and their attorneys maintain that they had the right to operate the casino. Two of the defendants—Jock and Square—are elected representatives of two of the three clans within the People of the Way of the Longhouse, which defense attorneys say is a tribe on the reservation. "The key issue is whether the Longhouse is a government that operates on Akwesasne. Absolutely, 100 percent. They are an Indian tribe." Lawrence Elman, the attorney for Jock told the Times Union Elman said the defendants received legal opinions from two lawyers and that it was legal to open a Class II casino, which allows for bingo and poker and does not require state involvement.

Donald Kinsella, the attorney for Laughing Sr. said the defense will argue that the men believe they had a right to open the casino. “The Men’ Council of the Longhouse feels that the federally recognized tribal government set up the casino and bingo hall and a lot of the proceeds were going to New York State,” Kinsella said. “So they decided to set something up to provide a benefit to the people who live there and they believe they had the right to do that. "

Dana Leigh Thompson, a Mohawk woman who attends the trial said she was struck by the incongruity of the moment when the trial began November 4—a day before New York voters approved expanding non Indian casinos by a 57 percent margin. “It was quite ironic! Here they were prosecuting these Indians for operating a casino and I wondered if the State of New York intended to share its gaming profits with the Indians,” Leigh Thompson told Indian Country Today Media Network.

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She said that Horsman has spoken disparagingly about the Longhouse during the trial. “In her eyes, there’s only one government and that’s the U.S. As for the Longhouse she seems to think that’s a thing of the past,” Leigh Thompson said.

“But the interesting thing is that it’s the tribe that brought this [case] to her.” Leigh Thompson emphasized that the three chiefs of the current tribal council – her brother-in-law Paul Thompson, Ron LaFrance and Bev Cook—were not involved in bringing the action forward to the federal prosecutors. “The two names that were mentioned by one of the witnesses in the beginning [were] Mark Garrow and Randy Hart who are not on the council anymore but it was during their time that this happened.” Garrow and Hart could not be reached for comment.

Jock’s attorney subpoenaed Paul Thompson and LaFrance to appear in court November 13 to testify, but the two men filed a “Motion to Quash” the subpoenas the next day, saying they were exempt from testifying by the tribe’s sovereign immunity. The court had not ruled on the motion as of November 20. In response to a request for comment, LaFrance said, “While we have been subpoenaed, we prefer not to comment on this ongoing case.”

Kinsella said he hasn’t read the motion to quash “but I find it a little ironic that the tribal council members are cooperating with the US attorney’s office to prosecute these gentlemen, but invoke their sovereign immunity when asked to participate directly.”

On November 18, the Hon. Thomas J. McAvoy, presiding judge, granted Kinsella’s motion for a mistrial on behalf of Laughing Sr., who fell ill last week and remained hospitalized. Kinsella was quick to explain that “the mistrial was not because of anybody’s misconduct; it really was because of Mr. Laughing’s health condition.”

But he declined to comment on the contents of an email that Leigh Thompson said was sent by Horsman to attorneys, “insinuating that Laughing was faking it.” 

“She did send an email,” Kinsella said, “but that’s kind of between the attorneys. It’s not something I’m going to discuss.”

Horsman referred a request for comment to John Duncan, executive assistant U.S. attorney in the Syracuse office. Duncan said they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

Leigh Thompson said the saddest thing is Mohawk community members going up against each other. “The problem is that deculturalization and assimilation have left a division among our people. It’s the legacy of colonialism’s divide and conquer tactics,” she said. “I wish people like Elizabeth Horsman would put their full force and vigor into helping our people in the sense that we’re one of the most polluted areas in North America—we have three superfund sites right here in Akwesasne because people have polluted our land. She should use that energy going after the corporations that have decimated our community.”