SYRACUSE, N.Y. - New York state Gov. George Pataki's comprehensive land
claims bill has created a political mess and should be abandoned, the
lawyer for the Cayuga Nation council told Indian Country Today.
Joseph Heath, a long-time advocate for Haudenosaunee traditionalists, said
the land claims negotiations had sold out the basic interests of the
Iroquois Nations. He accused a lawyer for another Cayuga faction of a
highly questionable conflict of interest and compared state tactics to the
negotiations of 1790 that started a chain of illegal acquisitions of Indian
Heath called for unity among the Iroquois Nations to defeat Pataki's
program and said he had begun working with lawyers for the Oneida Indian
Nation and the Seneca Nation of Indians. If the cooperation matures, it
would represent a significant union of three different currents in
(The Oneida Indian Nation owns Four Directions Media, the publisher of
Indian Country Today.)
At the same time, the Cayuga Nation is suffering a three-way internal split
over a land claim settlement which was signed with the state Nov. 17 and
then repudiated a month later by the principal signatory. Heath represents
six members of the nine-person Cayuga council who oppose the deal and the
casino project on which it was based. They are tenuously aligned with Clint
Halftown, who signed the deal and later denounced it and whose leadership
status is in dispute. Two other Cayuga representatives, Tom Twoguns and
Gary Wheeler, continue to support the casino and are drawing support from
the casino developer and the lawyer who negotiated the deal.
"It's a mess," said Heath.
Although Heath said the council wanted to sort out the issue internally,
BIA officer Dean White, field representative for the New York tribes,
visited the Cayugas Feb. 17 to look into the conflict.
A variety of suits are in federal court or heading there. But the intricate
struggle is just one part of a broader state negotiating program which to
say the least is now sending conflicting signals.
The governor's office announced an omnibus bill Feb. 3 to settle four
different land claims, mainly by offering the suing tribes a casino in the
potentially profitable Catskills market. Program Bill Six (known in Albany
as the bill "to settle all things Indian") also contained a framework for
resolving a bitter dispute over the collection of state sales and excise
taxes on reservation-based transactions with non-Indians. The arrangement
proposed by St. Regis Mohawk negotiators would concede state taxation at
the Catskills casinos in return for "trade agreements" on tribal price and
tax parity ordinances, which tribal delegates hoped would preserve the
ancestral reservations from state taxation attempts.
Pataki agreed to respect tribal sovereignty after a spring 1997 grassroots
Indian uprising against his earlier tax attempts. As recently as last
December he vetoed a state legislative directive to prepare a new wave of
taxation. But the ink had scarcely dried on his Feb. 2 signing of the
Mohawk settlement when the head of the state Department of Taxation and
Finance revealed that it was drafting regulations to tax reservation sales.
On Feb. 23, Pataki himself said that state legislation in 2003 required the
"It's not what I would like to see happen," he told Albany reporters, "but
we're going to obey the law."
While some observers see the state tax regulations as a negotiating ploy,
it is also noteworthy that Pataki is showing signs of serious political
weakness. Polls suggest he would have great difficulty winning a fourth
term next year, should he run again. He has also been frustrated in plans
to balance a shaky budget with gaming revenue. None of the three tribal
casinos authorized for the Catskills three years ago has opened (although
two of the three Seneca casinos approved in the same bill are now up and
running beyond expectations). Likewise, revenues from "racinos," race
tracks with state video lottery terminals, have fallen far short as the
criminal prosecution of a major racetrack operator stalled plans in the New
York City area.
The Cayuga conflict has also brought to light serious questions of conflict
of interest in that land claims settlement. Martin Gold, principal lawyer
for the Cayuga Nation land lawsuit since 1999, confirmed Feb. 17 that his
firm Sonnenshein, Nath & Rosenthal of Manhattan is receiving payments from
Empire Resorts, the developer of the proposed Cayuga casino in the
Catskills. According to documents filed in federal court by Halftown and
his attorney Daniel French, Empire Resorts promised to pay a $60 million
contingency fee due to Gold at the successful conclusion of its land claims
Although a contingency of roughly 25 percent is not unusual for a
protracted and complicated civil suit, it certainly raises eyebrows to have
it paid by a third party with divergent interests. Heath said the deal
presented a serious conflict of interest, implying that the developer
clearly had a more urgent need to build the casino than to gain highest
compensation for the lost land or to preserve tribal sovereignty. In fact
the settlement signed with the state Nov. 17 gave the Cayugas $150 million
for the land, almost $100 million less than the settlement ordered by the
U.S. District Court in Syracuse after the Cayuga won their lawsuit in 2002.
The Empire Resorts documents also showed plans to put $35,000 a month into
an account controlled by Twoguns and Wheeler, the tribal figures still
endorsing the settlement. Heath said the papers also revealed some 20
subsidiary contracts for the casino project, which he said at first glance
looked highly disadvantageous for the Cayuga Nation.
Empire Resorts controls Monticello Raceway, a harness racing track in the
Catskills that is the projected site for the Cayuga casino. It is the
successor to a partnership which had a BIA-approved deal with the St. Regis
Mohawks to build a casino at the same site. The St. Regis tribal council
broke off the deal, citing concerns about the character of some members of
the partnership, who were later bought out and removed by the current
leaders of Empire Resorts.