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Oneida leaders sued in housing dispute

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VERONA, N.Y. - A federal lawsuit accusing Oneida Nation officials of violating the civil rights of Oneidas was filed Nov. 13 in U.S. District Court by 19 Oneida Indians - 10 of them children.

The suit named Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and more than two dozen nation leaders, police officers and judges. The lawsuit does not name the nation itself.

"The lawsuit is nonsense and frivolous," nation spokesman Mark Emery said. "It is nothing but a public relations stunt aimed at taking away the focus from safe housing."

The plaintiffs, who oppose the nation government, asked a federal judge to stop the nation from forcibly inspecting houses, to overturn the nation's housing ordinance and to prevent the nation from demolishing homes without providing new housing.

The suit says that nation members who oppose the nation government and its housing inspection program could face the same fate as Danielle Patterson. She is a cousin of Halbritter who was arrested and taken to a Pennsylvania prison last month on a contempt of court charge after failing to show up for a hearing on charges of assaulting an Oneida Nation police officer. After a weekend in jail, she agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and allow the court-ordered demolition of her trailer to proceed without further resistance.

"You have these individuals who are arresting (Oneidas) and flying them to out-of-state prisons and using the power of imprisonment to force people to allow their houses to be demolished without being compensated, without any assistance, without any alternative housing," said Donald Daines, the New Jersey lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

"They are using their power to make people homeless," Daines said.

Daines said Oneida leaders had violated the Indian Civil Rights Act, which gives the federal court jurisdiction over the case.

However, Judge Norman Mordue raised doubts about whether federal court would have any power in acting on the lawsuit. Mordue rejected the plaintiff's request for a temporary restraining order preventing nation officials from inspecting homes or taking any other actions against the Oneidas who filed the suit.

Emery said the lawsuit was laced with factual errors and other misstatements.

He denied that the nation housing beautification project was being used as a way to suppress political dissent. He noted that among the 8 to 10 trailers declared uninhabitable and demolished, one was owned by a member of the nation's Men's Council. He said several other structures passed the inspection.

Emery also said it was a lie that the nation was depriving residents of their private personal property without compensation and leaving people homeless.

In Patterson's case, the nation in a Dec. 14, 2001 letter offered her a four-bedroom house with the cost subsidized by the nation. Patterson refused, Emery said.

"If people want to live in substandard housing, that's fine. But we are not going to allow children to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions," Emery said.

Patterson, a 31-year-old mother of two, last month pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal contempt in tribal court, a plea she now claims was coerced.

During an attempted inspection last November, Patterson scuffled with nation police and was charged with criminal contempt for violating a court order, resisting arrest and assault. The resisting arrest and assault charges were eventually dropped.

(Staff and Associated Press reports.)