Cuomo Sued to Stop Vote on Indian Casino Law

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Two towns in Central New York asked a judge to block legislation they say stacks the deck in favor of allowing casino gambling in the state.
     The legislation, approved in June, protects an Oneida Indian Nation casino from competition in exchange for the tribe’s promise not to oppose a constitutional amendment that would open New York to Las Vegas-style gaming.
     The amendment goes to voters in November.
     The towns of Vernon and Verona contend in a lawsuit in Albany County Supreme Court that state and county officials exceeded their authority in backing the legislation.
     The towns are located 35 miles east of Syracuse. Verona is home to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino.
     Four Vernon residents joined as plaintiffs, one of them an Oneida Indian.
     The 34-page lawsuit claims that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the governments of Madison and Oneida counties “sacrificed the interests of the towns of Vernon and Verona and the individual taxpayers in those towns for the sake of winning approval of the constitutional amendment.”
     “The way they did so was blatantly illegal and an affront to the integrity and sanctity of the fundamental right of the people of the state to vote and to decide how they should be governed in a democratic society,” the complaint states.
     Cuomo, who last year set the wheels in motion for the constitutional amendment, is a defendant, as are the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate. Also named are Madison and Oneida counties and their legislative leaders, for signing on to the promises offered to the Oneidas.
     New York’s Constitution prohibits commercial gambling and directs the Legislature to pass laws to prevent it. But Cuomo pushed for legislation to change the constitution to allow casinos “to be a major economic engine for New York State,” bringing in some $1 billion annually.
     New York’s Constitution can be amended when two separately elected Legislatures pass the same bill and it is approved by voters. That means that passage in 2012 must be followed by passage this year, by legislators who were elected last fall.
     The second passage came in June, putting the constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot.
     Soon after first passage in 2012, though, opposition began to surface, according to the complaint -including from the Oneida Indian Nation, which worried about the effect of new casinos on Turning Stone.
     That, in turn, caused concern in the Cuomo camp because the Oneidas, using “wealth derived from their Turning Stone Casino operation, were well-positioned to fund an aggressive campaign against the constitutional amendment,” according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs note that Turning Stone can exist in New York – despite its prohibition of casinos – because of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That law provides that if a state allows gaming for charitable purposes, as New York does, then a tribe can operate a casino free of state restrictions, as long as it is on “Indian land” and the state and the tribe have signed an agreement allowing it.
     Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of the current governor, signed a compact with the Oneidas in 1993 that led to the creation that year of Turning Stone. The resort boasts on its website of world-class gaming, golf, entertainment and accommodations that have earned AAA Four Diamond ratings. It encompasses 3,400 acres and draws 4.5 million visitors a year.
     The complaint says the younger Cuomo “sought to neutralize the major opponents to his proposal to amend the constitution” by meeting secretly this spring with the Oneidas.
     The talks spawned an agreement, codified as the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act of 2013, that secured the tribe’s support for the amendment.
     Among the provisions of the agreement was a guarantee to the Oneidas of “geographic exclusivity” in 10 counties where no other casinos could be located – even if the constitutional amendment is defeated in November, according to the complaint.
     Similar exclusive territories later were offered to the Seneca Nation and to the St. Regis Mohawks, who operate tribal casinos in western and northern New York, respectively, the complaint states.
     The Oneidas also won the promise that New York and Oneida and Madison counties would withdraw their federal challenge to the tribe’s request to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have 17,000 acres in the two counties placed in trust – making the acreage “Indian land,” according to the complaint.
     That would allow the Turning Stone Casino to continue to operate, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that its acreage was not sovereign land under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
     Another provision guaranteed the Legislature’s approval of the compact negotiated 20 years ago by Gov. Mario Cuomo, which a state appellate court ruled in 2005 was invalid because it lacked legislative authorization – another threat to Turning Stone’s continuation.
     The complaint contends the state and county officials “exceeded their authority in entering into, ratifying and codifying” the agreement with the Oneidas because it required the tribe “both to support and not to fund opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment in exchange for receiving extremely favorable treatment.”
     “This blatant attempt, confirmed in writing, to effectively buy the support of, and stifle any opposition from, the Oneidas in order to ensure passage of a constitutional amendment strikes at the very foundation of our democracy and subverts the sanctity of the electoral process,” the complaint states.
     The four individual plaintiffs – Michael McDonough, Daniel Deal, James Anderson and Melvin Phillips, who is “a native-born Oneida Indian” – oppose expansion of casino gambling. But their right to cast ballots in November “on equal footing with every other voter” has been infringed by the defendants’ “buying off other voters through the abuse of their power,” according to the complaint.
     They ask a judge to find the defendants exceeded their authority by signing the agreement with the Oneidas, and that the state did the same in codifying the agreement.
     They want the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act declared unconstitutional and officials blocked from implementing it.
     They are represented by Cornelius Murray, with O’Connell and Aronowitz in Albany.
     A Syracuse-area cable news channel, YNN, posted on its website a statement from the governor’s office that called the lawsuit “unfounded,” and said its allegations “have no basis in reality.”
     “The agreement is sound, has been approved by democratic votes in the relevant county legislatures, and settles long-standing issues with the Oneidas,” the statement said.
     In addition to the governor and Madison and Oneida counties, the defendants are John M. Becker, chairman of the Madison County Board of Supervisors; Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.; the New York State Gaming Commission; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; and the co-majority leaders of the state Senate, Dean Skelos and Jeffrey Klein.

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