Can you say "conflict of interest"?
The tony Washington, D.C. law firm of Aiken, Gump, Hauer and Feld has variously represented the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the Seneca Nation of Indians, casino kingpin Mickey Brown and others in recent years, often acting on behalf of different parties involved in the same litigation.
In an Aug. 16 letter to outgoing Seneca President Rickey Armstrong, the firm counseled that an appellate court ruling needed to be overturned. The letter was made available to the Reporter.
|"We were told the corporation would be a buffer between the tribe and any possible financial liability. But now we find out that the corporation is a liability in and of itself. ... First and foremost, I am anti-gambling. It's against our religion. But if a legitimate referendum were held, and the people were in favor of it, it should still be overseen by the council, and not by outsiders." -- Bob Jones, Senecas for Justice and Preservation|
"The recent decision of the Court of Appeals is having an immediate impact," the letter warned. "If the decision is allowed to stand, the Nation will be irreparably harmed in that it will be difficult to borrow money in the future."
The Aug. 10 court ruling held that the Seneca Niagara Gaming Corp. was established illegally under Seneca law, that the corporation's CEO, Mickey Brown, was not covered under the sovereign immunity treaties the Senecas signed with the United States more than 150 years ago and that any gaming should be conducted under the control of the Seneca Tribal Council.
The letter from the Washington lawyers worked its magic. Last week, the Tribal Council met in a closed-door session to undo the court decision.
Which angered many on the Seneca Nation.
Bob Jones, a longtime Seneca activist, said the council's move was ill-advised. Both Armstrong and former Seneca president Cyrus Schindler have filed documents with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission specifically exempting them from sovereign immunity.
This exemption on the part of Seneca leaders puts the tribe at risk of liability for financial decisions made by Brown and others running the casino.
"We were told the corporation would be a buffer between the tribe and any possible financial liability," Jones told the Reporter. "But now we find out that the corporation is a liability in and of itself."
The Aiken and Gump letter makes no bones about the financial implications of the court decision. A federal Securities and Exchange Commission filing would be jeopardized should the decision be allowed to stand, it stated.
"In effect, the Nation very likely will not be able to access the capital markets for municipal bond financing and the Seneca Gaming Corp. may not be able to go back to the markets for additional financing for completion of the expansion projects," the letter states.
Jones said his grassroots organization, Senecas for Justice and Preservation, will file a lawsuit this week seeking to shut down the bars at both the Niagara Falls and Salamanca casinos.
Furthermore, he said, the group will ask the Securities and Exchange Commission to rule on the $300 million bond financing the gaming corporation has obtained to expand its holdings.
Asked about his motivation, Jones said the Seneca religion, as handed down by the prophet Handsome Lake in 1799, forbids both gambling and drinking.
"First and foremost, I am anti-gambling. It's against our religion," he said. "But if a legitimate referendum were held, and the people were in favor of it, it should still be overseen by the council, and not by outsiders."
According to the Seneca constitution, two-thirds of the voters and three-quarters of the tribal mothers must approve of a measure before it can be passed. By that measure, the slim margin that approved the establishment of the Seneca Niagara Casino is illegal, Jones said.
Speaking for many on the Cattaraugus and Allegany Seneca reservations, Jones said he is dissatisfied with the distribution of casino profits within the tribe.
The average monthly check for Seneca elders has gone up just $100, from $50 to $150, and only a small percentage of employees at the Niagara Falls casino are Seneca.
While Jones said his organization is non-political, and ruled out the possibility of his running for tribal president this November, he acknowledged that the casino issue will play a major role in the upcoming election.
"There's no getting around it," he said. "The current leadership, and the system they've imposed on the people, is what it's all about. And I'd say they're done."
Will Mickey Brown's tenure at the Seneca Niagara Casino end as ignominiously as it did at Connecticut's Foxwoods Casino? Or as his presidency of the board of directors at the posh Parkway condominiums?
We'll have to wait until November to find out.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Aug. 24 2004|