November 18, 2011

Seneca President and Council Announce Reconciliation, Council Chairmanship Remains Unclear

The Seneca Nation president and council appear to have resolved an internal power struggle that threatened to paralyze the government’s functioning.

Late Thursday, November 17, Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter and the council released a statement saying they are “committed to a new working relationship built upon mutual respect and cooperation.”

Last Saturday, the council voted 10-6 to remove Porter as the Nation’s Chief Executive Officer. The following day Seneca Nation Clerk Diane Kennedy Murth issued a certified document saying the vote was illegal. She cited a section of the Nation’s Constitution that says the clerk must certify all actions by the council and that “the Nation’s Ethics Law prohibits Nation officials from acting upon matters in which they or their family members have a personal interest.” The motion the previous day to oust Porter as CEO and appoint Councilor Michael “Spike” John to the position was made by Councilor J.C. Seneca and seconded by Councilor Donald John. Donald and Michael John are brothers. Based on Murth’s finding, Porter issued an executive order directing all Seneca Nation government agencies and employees to ignore any orders from John.

The president and council announced in their statement Thursday that after several days of “intense discussion,” the council had rescinded its resolution to remove Porter as CEO.

“As we have seen in other governments throughout the United States and the world, sometimes political officials disagree so intensely that normal governing process is disrupted,” Porter said. “For my part, I want to apologize to my colleagues and the Seneca people for my part in participating in this disagreement. Words were said by me that, upon reflection, were hurtful and unnecessary. I respect the Council’s authority and I am committed to improving our government and will continue to advocate strongly for what I think is best for our people and Nation during my remaining year in office.”

J.C. Seneca also apologized for his part in the dispute. “I was the original sponsor of the motion to remove President Porter [as CEO], and I apologize for the harm that this action has caused him and the Seneca people,” he said. “Discussion is always better before action, and this cardinal rule should always be followed. The Council stands with President Porter and supports him in his work on behalf of our Nation.”

What remains unclear is the chairmanship of the council. On Tuesday, November 15, a joint statement was issued by Porter and “new Council Chairman J.C. Seneca,” announcing that the president and council were meeting for ongoing discussions and were committed to finding a resolution to their disagreements. No mention was made about how it came about that J.C. Seneca had replaced Council Chairman Richard Nephew. In Thursday’s statement, J.C Seneca is referred to as “Councilor J.C, Seneca,” not chairman. The statement did not say whether Nephew has been reinstated as council chairman.

The statement also said, “There will be no additional comment on this matter and no interviews at this time.”

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December 7, 2011

Cuomo Backs Commercial Casinos

Seneca leaders vow to protect Nation’s gaming exclusivity zone

The New York governor has come on board with state legislators and a lobbying group representing race tracks in support of expanding commercial gaming.

With the state facing a $3.5 billion deficit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo with Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced a plan Tuesday, December 6, “to create jobs and grow the economy” through tax reforms, infrastructure funding, and support for an amendment to the state Constitution that will allow commercial gaming throughout the state.

President James Featherstonhaugh, the president of the New York Gaming Association, welcomed the governor’s support, the Queens Courier reported. The New York Gaming Association represents nine racetracks that are lobbying for a change in the state Constitution to allow their facilities to convert from the existing video lottery terminals to full casinos with slot machines, poker and other table games. “We are pleased to hear of [the governor’s] support for legalizing enhanced commercial gaming in New York State, which will create tens of thousands of much-needed jobs, generate hundreds of millions in additional state revenues and stimulate significant private sector investment,” he said.

Featherstonehaugh had predicted Cuomo’s action at the second annual New England Gaming Summit at Mohegan Sun November 14. “I expect the governor to endorse the general concept in the next week to 10 days. I think there’ll be passage early in the session of a very general constitutional amendment which will then be fleshed out over the course of the next year before it goes to the public,” Featherstonehaugh said. “There are currently nine conceptual expansions already drawn up. By 2014 those expansions will be shovel-ready and would be finished in 2015.”

On the same day as Cuomo’s announcement, the Seneca Nation of Indians released a poll indicating residents in Seneca territory in Western New York support the Nation’s exclusive rights to casino gaming in the area. Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter and other tribal leaders said they expect the state to abide by the exclusivity terms of the compact, which has the same legal force as a contract or treaty.

The Nation is currently in arbitration with the state to settle a gaming dispute involving more than $330 million in slot machine revenues. The Nation has withheld the payments to the state since 2009, charging that the state has violated the exclusivity provision of its gaming compact by allowing and promoting slot machines at private businesses and three state-run racinos located within its exclusivity zone.

Porter said the Nation would oppose any further attempts to violate its exclusivity zone. “New Yorkers have every right to discuss expanded gaming outside our exclusivity zone. As a business partner with the state, we disagree over racinos in our zone. But the issue of the state breaching Seneca exclusivity will be arbitrated and resolved. In the meantime and the future, the Nation will continue to be a leader in this area of economic development,” Porter said in a statement.

As for Cuomo’s economic development plan, the governor and legislators provided details about tax reform and infrastructure spending. The overhaul of New York State’s income tax will provide a higher-tax bracket for the highest-income residents and reduction of the tax rate for 4.4 million middle-class residents. The infrastructure strategy, called the NY Works Agenda, will provide $1 billion to target and accelerate investment in key infrastructure projects around the state including roads, bridges, parks, energy and water projects. But the announcement was short on details about the casino expansion plan. “The NY Works Agenda also includes pursuing a comprehensive gaming plan and enacting a new tax credit to incentive the hiring of inner city youth,” the announcement says. “The Leaders expressed support to work with the Governor and request support from their respective majorities to put a constitutional amendment up for a vote. “

Porter said the Nation, with its three destination casino properties, will continue to be part of the discussion. “Working with the state since 2002, the Nation invested $900 million in three casinos and created thousands of jobs that have a significant economic multiplier effect,””Porter said. “Let’s keep the big picture in focus: Seneca gaming works and right now it’s the only gambling mechanism that provides economic benefits to the state and its people, and will continue to for years before any amendment might be put to a vote.”

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January 13, 2012

$130m Expected From Indian Cigarette Taxes Stubbed Out: Awkward!

The New York legislature’s scheme to bolster the state’s coffers by forcing Indian nations to collect taxes on cigarettes sold on reservations has gone up in smoke.

The state’s tax collectors were recently calling around to convenience-store owners, wondering what happened to the tax dollars that were supposed to be rolling into the state, the New York Post reported January 12. The state had projected $130 million in extra taxes – and included that amount as revenue in the current budge – but the money didn’t show up. Post columnist John Crudele wrote that he has a memo which was sent to members of the New York Association of Convenience Stores from its President Jim Calvin that said, “I got a call from Gov. Cuomo’s budget office yesterday. In examining cigarette tax receipts so far this fiscal year (April 1 to March 31) it looks like they will fall considerably short of their projection in new revenues. …”

The state has tried unsuccessfully during decades of tobacco wars to force sovereign Indian nations to collect taxes on the cigarettes they sell to non-Native customers in Indian country, but the nations have resolutely refused to be tax collectors for the state. The N.Y. Department of Taxation and Finance launched a new effort in early 2010 by amending the state’s cigarette tax law and companion regulations to require wholesalers and distributors to pay the $4.35-a-pack tax upfront on all cigarettes sold to reservations. Prior to the new law, Indian nations could order unstamped, untaxed cigarettes to sell on the Internet or to customers who travelled to reservations to buy their tax-free smokes. The idea of the new law was to force Indian tobacco businesses to collect the taxes on all the cigarettes they sold and then go through an onerous process to get a refund for the tax exempt cigarettes sold to Indians. The new law also included a quota system limiting the number of tax-exempt cigarettes a nation could buy based on the number of enrolled members.

The Seneca Nation of Indians challenged the legality of the law and managed to delay its implementation, but ultimately lost the case. Both the Seneca Nation and the Oneida Indian Nation responded to the new law by announcing they would no longer buy the famous brand cigarettes manufactured by the Big Tobacco companies of Philip Morris (Altria), Reynolds-American and Lorillard. Instead they would manufacture and sell their own brands of cigarettes.

“While the state may be able to embargo through taxation premium brands from entering our territory, it cannot tax the brands made in our territory or any of the Six Nations,” Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter said.

The new law is having a negative impact on cigarette wholesalers and employment numbers, according to Crudele. “Wholesalers say sales are down between 20 percent and 30 percent among legitimate cigarette sellers,” Crudele wrote. “State enforcement of the tax laws, meanwhile, has been lax, to say the least. New York, I’m told, has reduced the force working on illegal cigarettes by 80 percent since the tax hike went into effect.” According to the memo Crudele received, the state budget office said cigarette tax revenues were the same in October and November as the year before. “That seems to mean that Albany is $130 million short on its $130 million projection,” Crudele wrote.

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February 12, 2012

Senator Mark Grisanti and Wife Attacked at Seneca Casino

On February 10, the Seneca Nation Casino at Niagara Falls, owned by the Seneca Indian Nation, was raising money and awareness for the Seneca Diabetes Foundation with figurehead attendees like Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-NY, and his wife. Fundraising events like this are always for the good, but the events that followed have overshadowed the event as Grisanti and his wife were attacked.

According to the Associated Press, Grisanti and his wife were in the Niagara Casino hotel and came across two men arguing. The first-time senator representing the Buffalo area, tried to break it up and proceeded to be accused of hating the Seneca Nation before being attacked.

The constant fight in the courts between the Seneca Nation and New York State has been well publicized, as New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo continues to push for taxes from tribal land.

Grisanti, ended up with bruised ribs, but his wife was diagnosed with a concussion and a broken nose. The AP story reports two women who were with the arguing men, attacked Grisanti’s wife, while the men attacked Grisanti.

“I would hope for better behavior and conduct from everyone at such an event as this, although it transpired sometime after the gala ended. Sadly, one cannot control individual behavior. On behalf of the Seneca Nation, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to Sen. Grisanti, his wife Maria and their family,” said Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter in an official statement.

The attackers were not detained and surveillance footage has been reported as “inconclusive.” The Niagara Falls Police Department is currently looking into the matter.

“At this time the Niagara Falls Police Department is reviewing the situation and investigating any and all facts to determine what exactly took place,” John Chella, the superintendent of police there, said in a statement reported by the New York Times.

The AP reports that Grisanti said that he does not blame the tribe for what happened.

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February 24, 2012

Feds Seize Fake Marijuana in Tonawanda Seneca Nation Raid

Dozens of federal agents raided four shops on the Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s reservation and seized undisclosed amounts of synthetic marijuana and other goods.

The raid happened around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 23. The 7,500-acre reservation near Basom, N.Y., in Genesee County straddles Niagara and Erie county borders 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. An estimated 90 agents armed with rifles and other weapons simultaneously raided Sacajawea, the Rez Smoke Shop, Arrowhawk Smoke Shop and Smoke Rings Tobacco Emporium. Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) took part in the raid, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the raid was prompted by recent cases of overdoses that sent young people to the hospital. Fake marijuana is a chemical that can be misted with herbs and sold as incense or bath salts and tea, and it can have dangerous side effects.

Darwin Hill, one of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation chiefs, said the nation’s council is reviewing the situation. “At this time we don’t actually have a statement that I could release to the press. We were in council when the raid occurred. There are a lot of things we have to review and we decided that we’re not ready to release a statement until we reach an additional step after a discussion with the U.S. attorney,” Hill said.

That discussion will take place on Monday, February 27. The fact that the nation wasn’t notified in advance is an issue, said Joe Heath, attorney for the Onondaga Nation. “The annoying thing” about the raid, Heath said, was that the U.S attorney had called Hill and “demanded he come to a meeting without telling what the meeting was about. The Tonawanda lawyer couldn’t reach him and then they went and conducted the raid without any notice to the (Nation’s) government.”

Heath said the raid puts the Tonawanda government in a “weird” position because their jurisdiction has been challenged. “They’ve asked the Tadodaho and me to go over along with their lawyer to the meeting with the U.S. attorney because, clearly, this is a (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy issue.” Tadodaho Sidney Hill is the traditional spiritual leader of the Confederacy. The Onondaga and Tonawanda nations are “very close,” Heath said, “not geographically, but we do a lot of work together.”

United States Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., who will attend the meeting on Monday, said he wasn’t aware that anyone was upset. ‘Certainly, nobody we spoke to was upset. We did speak to tribal leaders as the search was commencing,” Hochul said. But in terms of speaking to the leaders before the raid started, Hochul said that was not always possible. “Here’s the problem. Sometimes law enforcement can’t alert people to the impending execution of a warrant whether it’s a tribal nation or the city of Buffalo for the reason of safety. Heaven forbid there would have been a weapon and somebody had advance warning. There’d be a risk not only to the officers but to anyone in the store. I’m not speaking in terms of the leadership in this case at all, but sometimes law enforcement just can’t warn people in advance of an event.”

Hochul could not say precisely what was seized – or how much – because of the ongoing investigation and because the federal agents have not yet concluded an inventory of the goods that were seized “pursuant to federal search warrants.” The agents have to file an inventory of the goods that were seized with a court before that information is made public, Hochul said.

Synthetic marijuana was legal until recently. The substance was considered so dangerous that in October last year the DEA used its emergency rule-making authority to designate the synthetic substance as ‘illegal to sell intending for human consumption,’” Hochul said. Synthetic marijuana can cause seizures, accelerated respiration, catatonia and other affects, Hochul said. He said that other tribal nations have already banned or are about to ban synthetic drugs from their territories. Last month, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe banned fake pot from its reservation.

In addition to fake pot, federal agents also seized counterfeit merchandise and cigarettes made by unlicensed manufacturers that can also contain toxic substances such as fiberglass, Hochul said. Cigarettes produced by unregulated manufacturers not only pose a health problem, but also have the effect of harming tribal businesses in which the nations are regulating and licensing the manufacturing of cigarettes. “The Seneca Nation, which is the largest manufacturer in Western New York, has a very well regulated system in place thanks to the effort of President (Robert Odawi) Porter and the whole tribal leadership,” Hochul said.

Heath said he plans to bring documents to Monday’s meeting that he hopes will provide a model for an agreement between the nation and law enforcement agencies in which the agencies agree to notify the nation’s leadership prior to coming onto sovereign Indian land. The Onondaga Nation has such an agreement, Heath said, and it has worked well for years. “You need to have some respect for the fact that this is a sovereign government when it comes to law enforcement, particularly when it comes to drugs, which no government wants on its territory,” heath said.

But Heath had no kind words for the Tonawanda shop owners who operate businesses that are not licensed by the nation. “They use the nation’s sovereignty for their own personal gain and do nothing to support their own government. They do not abide by their own government’s regulations,” Heath said. “We hope this is an opportunity that provides a bridge to change that sort of behavior. It’s one thing to sell untaxed cigarettes on Indian land; it’s another thing to sell all this junk. They need to work under the control and regulations of their own government particularly when they cry ‘sovereignty,’” he said.

Hochul said he understands that the Tonawanda leadership is eager to remove the synthetic drugs from the community. ‘And our sympathies are obviously with the leadership. If you’re a tribal leader and you say to a business man, ‘We want you to remove this from the reservation’ and he says, ‘No,’ what other recourse do you have but to turn to federal authorities such as our office?” No arrests were made during the raid. “There won’t be arrests unless there’s a sufficient quantum of evidence to justify charges,” Hochul said.

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March 28, 2012

Calvin Lay, Former Seneca President, Walks On

Calvin E. Lay of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, World War II veteran and long-time member of Seneca Nation Politics died February 19, 2012 in the Gowanda Nursing Home, Gowanda, New York, following a short illness. He was 86.

According to Buffalo News, Lay was born in Red House, near Salamanca, New York; educated at the Thomas Indian School; and held various governmental positions with the Seneca Indian Nation throughout his life.

Lay served in the Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, seeing combat in France and Belgium. According to Observer Today, he was a member of Iroquois Post 1587, American Legion, and held posts as chaplain, treasurer and commander.

A member of the Deer Clan, Lay’s service within tribal government according to The Sun News included:

  • Seneca Nation marshal in 1952
  • Peacemaker in 1968, 1993 and 1997
  • Four terms on the Tribal Council in 1956, 1970, 1972 and 1980
  • Seneca Nation treasurer from 1974 to 1976
  • Seneca Nation president from 1976 to 1978 and again in 1984, when he ran as an independent and won, a historic event in Seneca Nation politics.

Lay also served on boards for the Seneca Nation Library, the Seneca Nation Iroquois Museum, and helped fund the Tri-County and Lake Shore hospitals according to The Sun News.

“Cal Lay was an honest and humble, dyed-in-the- wool servant of the Seneca Nation,” President Robert Odawi Porter said in Buffalo News. “The Seneca Nation is extremely grateful for Cal’s lifelong service and contributions to the Seneca Nation. We are also indebted to him for his courage and service in World War II. When we speak to our Seneca children of Seneca men and women who are good role models from which we can all learn, Cal Lay is among those exemplary citizens who was willing to go the extra mile, make sacrifices for his people and defend the best interests of the Seneca Nation. He will be sorely missed.”

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November 21, 2012

Former New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin Calls Out Gov. Cuomo for Ignoring Indian Nations in Economic Development Conversations

MichaelBenjamin Former New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin Calls Out Gov. Cuomo for Ignoring Indian Nations in Economic Development Conversations

Michael Benjamin

Former New York State assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who represented the Bronx for eight years (2003-2010), is criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo for not including Indian nations in discussions about economic development in the state.

In an op-ed published in City and State New York in November, Benjamin underscores the valuable contributions made by tribes, which are “culturally, historically and economically bound to New York.”

Benjamin pointed to Cuomo’s “wine and beer summit” in October and “yogurt summit” in August, during which the governor toured the areas covered by the state’s 10 regional economic development councils to gauge their progress.

“It’s insulting he did not host a summit on Native American affairs,” Benjamin told ICTMN.

By not inviting Indian nations to participate in conversations about economic development initiatives, Cuomo is ignoring their significant impact as major job providers and revenue sources in the state.

“They see themselves as stewards of the environment,” Benjamin wrote in January 2012 in another op-ed for City and State New York. “All of the nations want to stimulate the state’s economy in ways that create and attract new jobs to central and western New York.”

New York’s Indian nations are not represented on the state’s economic development regional councils, despite attempts by the black and Hispanic caucuses and Sen. George Maziarz, chairman of the Committee on State–Native American Relations, to include tribal leaders, according to Benjamin.

“Treating New York’s first people as less than second-class citizens when it comes to our state being ‘open for business’ is counterproductive,” Benjamin wrote in his most recent op-ed.

Benjamin recommends Cuomo follow through on Gov. David Paterson’s promise to create a cabinet-level post on Indian Nation Sovereign Affairs. “Such a move would ensure regular, direct communications, and would signal the governor’s respect, commitment and desire to resolve outstanding issues.”

Benjamin stressed Cuomo needs to collaborate with the state’s tribes to move beyond the “current stalemate.” Numerous disputes loom over the tribal-state relationship, he said, referencing cigarette taxes, expanded gaming and more.

“The state is still spending millions on Native American land claims. Those need to be resolved. They have been in and out of the courts for 20 years,” Benjamin said. “It’s interesting the governor will voice his opinions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but he will not discuss resolving issues with Native American nations in his home state.”

In his most recent op-ed, Benjamin referenced the Seneca tribal government’s refusal to remit $460 million in gaming profits to New York State and surrounding cities because of three racinos operating in Western New York that violate the tribe’s exclusivity contract.

In addition, the Senecas claim they were not properly compensated for granting the right-of-way for the construction of a Thruway that bisects Seneca territory—an issue that could likely impede Cuomo’s plans for improvement projects.

“We shouldn’t have to go through this rhetoric every five years,” Benjamin told ICTMN. “Everything should be on the table to be discussed.”

Considering the Seneca Nation is the fifth-largest employer in western New York and it has invested tens of millions of dollars in the region, the tribe deserves to be consulted on the state’s economic goals along with all business leaders.

Similarly, the Oneida Indian Nation employs approximately 4,500 people in Central New York. Since 1993, the Nation has spent over $2.2 billion on goods and services, and in fiscal year 2011, it spent more than $294 million with 3,472 vendors.

Benjamin noted the Oneidas recently became the lead investor in the Syracuse-based Hofmann’s Sausage Company. The partnership will save local jobs and “possibly enable the firm to expand nationally,” he said.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in North Central New York likewise contributes millions of dollars annually to the economy of a relatively economically depressed area.

“If New York is open for business, it should be open for all New Yorkers—native and non-native alike,” Benjamin said.

While Benjamin said he has received little response to his op-eds, he will be on the the John Gambling Radio Show (WWOR710) on Thanksgiving morning to discuss his “Indian Summit” op-ed with guest host, former Gov. David Paterson. “When I pitched the idea to his producer, Scott Lakefield, I mentioned that the Oneidas would be participating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade again this year. His producer said Paterson loved the piece and the issue as well as doing an interview on Thanksgiving Day prior to the station’s coverage of the Macy’s Parade,” Benjamin said.

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