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Seneca Nation and New York compact still has hurdles

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ALBANY, N.Y. ? Questions still have to be answered before the Seneca nation starts to install slot machines in what was the Niagara Falls Civic Center. Although Seneca President Cyrus M. Schindler signed a gaming compact with New York State Gov. George Pataki on Aug. 18, everyone acknowledged that the highly publicized ceremony was just the beginning of the end game.

The compact and its off-reservation land provisions must still win approval from the BIA. The state courts must settle a pesky lawsuit arguing that the deal violated constitutional prohibitions of gambling. And both Pataki and Schindler must face voters in upcoming elections in both New York State and the Seneca nation.

Schindler's two-year term as nation President is up this November, and opponents of the casino plan will have an opportunity to regroup. Although Schindler's Seneca Party won decisively in 2000, he managed to carry a referendum on the casino compact earlier this spring by only 100 votes. The coalition against the plan, composed both of traditionalists and militant defenders of tribal sovereignty, are still attacking some of the entrepreneurs who support it and some of the apparent concessions to New York State labor law.

Tribal sovereignty has already become an issue in the New York State race for governor. One potential Democratic challenger to the Republican Pataki, State Controller H. Carl McCall, has strongly attacked the administration for its 1997 decision not to collect the state sales tax on reservation sales to non-Indians. The other major Democratic challenger, Andrew Cuomo, is under attack for accepting a large campaign contribution from the Cabazon tribe of California.

Casino politics makes a more subtle subtext to a primary challenge to Pataki coming from billionaire businessman Thomas Golisano. Pataki strategists consider Golisano a wild-card threat if only because he has threatened to spend -million on television ads already running widely. Golisano's chief strategist Roger Stone is playing an active role elsewhere in casino politics. He has been said to harbor a grudge against Pataki because of a massive New York State fine levied over an ad campaign Stone designed on behalf of Atlantic City mogul Donald Trump in a vain attempt to stall an earlier plan to expand the state's Indian gaming.

A lawsuit still working through the courts seeks to undermine the current law providing for the casino expansion. Anti-gaming lawyer Cornelius Murray said his suit, filed in January, challenges the legality of the October 2001 law approved by the state Legislature and Gov. George Pataki, which the governor cited Aug. 19 when he entered into a casino compact with Seneca tribal officials.

The compact allows the Senecas to establish up to three casinos in western New York. Tribal officials said they'd set up their first gambling hall by early next year at the Niagara Falls Civic Center and find locations in Buffalo and on Seneca land for other casinos later.

"Our main argument is that this agreement (with the Senecas) violates the New York State Constitution because the Legislature purports to authorize activity that is expressly prohibited under the constitution," Murray said.

His suit, filed on behalf of state legislators, also seeks to invalidate the other chief components of the October 2001 gambling bill: the placing of slot-like video machines in horse racing tracks and New York's entry into the Mega Millions multi-state lottery game.

New York has been in the lottery game since May. State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi has declined to issue a temporary restraining order against the state Lottery Division selling tickets to the multi-state game, an indication that that aspect of the suit may fail, Murray conceded.

But the Albany-based lawyer said the casino challenge is solid.

"This isn't some quixotic tilting-at-windmills lawsuit," Murray said. "This is serious stuff. If they don't take us seriously, I think they are making a mistake.

"The state at this point is gambling on winning the lawsuit," Murray added. "It's going ahead and committing all kinds of resources and asking others to commit all sorts of resources before they know what the outcome is going to be."

A Seneca official said the tribe is not deterred by the Albany suit.

"We don't see it as a hindrance," Lucille White, legislative administrator for the Seneca's tribal council, said on Aug. 19. "There have been many obstacles that have been thrown in our path."

Suzanne Morris, a spokeswoman for Pataki, said the administration is "very confident" that the legal challenges will fail. "We fully expected legal challenges, which is why we carefully reviewed all the legal documents before going forward with the compact," she said.

The federal government must also approve the compact.

White said the Senecas believe they have addressed the concerns in Albany, especially from state Assembly Democrats, that organized labor gets a chance to represent workers the Senecas use to build and operate the casinos. She said that comes even though the Senecas do not believe they had to offer the state such a guarantee because they consider themselves members of a sovereign nation.

"It is illegal for them to require it," she said of state officials. "But the Seneca nation, willing to work with the state of New York ... has said, 'Sure, we can do this, even though we would be sovereign territory.'"

Earlier this month, the Senecas selected a union-friendly contractor to oversee a -million renovation to turn the Niagara Falls Civic Center into the tribe's first casino. The Senecas also agreed to give building trade unions access to remodeling work and to ensure unions representing gambling and restaurant workers the ability to carry out organizing efforts.

White said that labor agreement was not a formal part of the compact. Murray argued that its absence could be a fatal flaw in the compact since the October 2001 law authorizing the Seneca gambling compact guaranteed that the interests of labor be protected in the deal.

The October 2001 gambling bill was signed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Pataki and legislative leaders said the state needs new revenue sources to weather the recession and the economic damage done by the terrorists.

The legislation allows the establishment of up to three more Indian-run casinos to join the existing two in New York run by Oneida and Mohawk Indians.

The state anticipates roughly 0 million a year in revenues from the Seneca's' casinos.

(Staff with Associated Press reports)