New York Indian casinos on a roll


ALBANY, N.Y. - Tribal casinos are running a hot streak in New York state since St. Regis Mohawks handed gaming and real estate billionaire Donald Trump a sharp and satisfying defeat in the last hours of the legislative session.

Defeat of a bill that would have delayed a proposed Mohawk casino has given a big push to plans by other tribes.

A leader of the Seneca Nation confirmed that a gambling compact with New York state was within reach. If ratified by Gov. George Pataki, it would make the Senecas the third tribal nation eligible for a casino, joining the Oneidas and the St. Regis Mohawks.

"I'm very optimistic," said Michael John, chairman of the Seneca Casino negotiating committee, about talks with the governor's staff. "We're down to a handful of issues."

He said the unique terms of the 1990 federal land settlement with the Senecas would make it possible to locate a casino anywhere in central and western New York state.

Separately, a former business partner spurned by the Mohawks is reported to be going the rounds of the Iroquois Confederacy to find another tribal sponsor for a Catskill casino. A spokesman for the Cayuga Nation said its lawyer was studying a proposal from developers. Although not identified, they are believed to be partners of Catskill Development LLC, owner of the struggling Monticello Raceway in a resort area 90 miles north of New York City.

Earlier this year, this partnership won federal approval for a Mohawk casino at that site. But, the St. Regis Tribal Council switched to another partner, Park Place Entertainment, after receiving information that Spokeswoman Rowena General said raised concerns about the financial position of Catskill Development.

The Mohawk casino was further threatened when the New York Senate unanimously passed a bill in mid-June requiring two additional layers of approvals for off-reservation casinos. The bill expanded on a measure originally proposed by Gov. Pataki to require legislative approval. It would also have required a local referendum.

The measure was strongly backed by lobbyists associated with Trump, who was widely believed to be protecting his Atlantic City holdings against possible competition. For a while after Speaker Sheldon Silver said he would bring it forward, it seemed sure to pass the Assembly as well.

But a revolt against Silver on the evening of the last day of the session led him to withdraw the bill. The assemblyman for the region, Jacob Gunther, D-Sullivan County, dropped his support after concluding it could severely hurt prospects for a revived local economy. He persuaded enough caucus members to defer to his local interest to force the speaker to pigeonhole the bill.

The victory was doubly sweet for the tribal council which blamed Trump for sponsoring a harshly worded series of ads accusing the tribe of money laundering, violence and human smuggling. The tribe turned the campaign back on his head with a series of reply ads urging legislators "to protect New York, not New Jersey, and not Donald Trump."

The ads argued effectively that the casino, tentatively planned for the Monticello racetrack or a nearby resort would create 7,000 jobs and contribute $337 million for the New York economy.

Retaliatory ads from the Mohawk said: But the Donald says no. Because Trump suspects a Monticello casino will take money away from his New Jersey gambling empire.

The Mohawk's new partner, Arthur M. Goldberg of Park Place Entertainment, said after the bill was shelved that he would move quickly to put land in federal trust for the tribe. He predicted an interim casino could open by the fall of 2001.

General said Golberg's defense of Mohawk interests confirmed the tribal council's judgment in joining with him. Some published reports, notably in the New York Times, gave prominence to charges that Goldberg was playing a double game. As the world's largest gaming company, Park Place owns three casinos in Atlantic City. A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of dissident St. Regis tribal members claimed Goldberg was merely trying to derail the Monticello project.

But, tribal elections in early June returned the council with no change. With the recent victory in the New York Legislature, General said Goldberg "has proven his sincerity, his ability and his commitment.

"Our council was up against the force of Donald Trump. It was able to withstand all of his attacks, both internally and externally."

In the meantime, the Mohawk's former partners, Catskill Development LLC, were reported to have turned to the Cayuga to keep its plan alive. "It almost looks like the developers down there are going down the list of the Six Nations tribes," said Clint Halftown, Cayuga spokesman. No further details were available while the plan was under study.

"We have absolutely no contact with developers," said Seneca leader Michael John about his negotiations for a gaming compact. But defeat of the Legislature's bill removed a big problem, he said. "We won't have to worry about that for another year."

He added that any deal would have to be approved in a tribal referendum. But if a compact went through, the Senecas would have unusual flexibility in locating any casino. The fund awarded the tribe by Congress in the 1990 Salamanca Settlement Act could be used to buy land anywhere in its aboriginal territory which includes all of western and central New York, he said. A casino would be an economic boon for the region but it faced intense opposition. "That's been an on-going problem with Donald Trump," he said.

The hot pace in New York state doesn't reach to New England, however. On June 23, the Rhode Island House voted 70 to 25 to kill a statewide referendum for a Narragansett Indian casino in West Warwick. The vote came days earlier than expected by the Narragansetts and their financial backer, Boyd Gaming Corp. of Las Vegas, and short-circuited plans for a last-minute media campaign.

"We believe the actions of the General Assembly were discriminatory toward the tribe, unquestionably," said a very annoyed Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas. "They want to keep us ignorant and in the woods."