HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — A Native American tribe that holds the unique distinction of losing federal recognition filed a $610 million complaint on Friday seeking damages for Connecticut's seizure of its land.
Though it lacks federal recognition, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation says Connecticut recognized it in 1736 and took 2,000 acres of tribal land between 1801 to 1918 without providing any compensation.
The complaint in Hartford Superior Court says the state exceeded its authority in 1801, taking and selling 1,129 acres roughly 45 percent of the tribe's total land.
Connecticut allegedly put the money in a bank through which it lent money to state residents for mortgages and general notes. The Schaghticoke say they lost thousands more acres this way over the next century, takings that allowed Connecticut to issue approximately 91 mortgages totaling over $45,000. The tribe received neither principal nor interest from those land transactions, according to the complaint, and the overseers never took legal action to collect debt from delinquent payers.
Discussing the suit Friday at a press conference, attorney Austin Tighe said the state has never offered the tribe an accounting of the land for the past 200 years.
The $610 million damages estimate accounts for four land transactions and the value of the land at the time it was taken, added Tighe, lead counsel with the Texas law firm of Nix, Patterson and Roach.
Tighe said his firm accepts about one out of every 50 cases, but took this case on contingency.
The tribe's meticulous recordkeeping was a big factor in this, Tighe added, calling it unclear whether the state has its documentation in similar order.
What is clear, Tighe said, is that the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution require a state to pay fair compensation when it takes land in the manner it took Schaghticoke land.
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky told reporters at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford that the tribe is interested only in a "fair and just financial settlement for the land that was unconstitutionally taken."
"That is all we seek with this lawsuit," Velky said, emphasizing that the case is not about federal recognition and or building a casino.
Those two issues may have nothing to do with the current lawsuit, but they are what teamed up Velky with former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is helping represent the tribe.
Lieberman told reporters he is trying to make amends for his previous opposition to the tribe.
In 2004 and 2005, when he was a U.S. senator from Connecticut, Lieberman was opposed to the Schaghticoke receiving federal recognition.
The tribe briefly received federal recognition in 2004, but it was taken away in 2005 after Lieberman and other state leaders pressed the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a reversal. It was the first time federal recognition of a tribe had ever been reversed.
Lieberman said Friday that he fought federal recognition because there was a desire by the Connecticut public not to expand casino gaming. At the time, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribal Nation built some of the world's largest casinos in southwestern Connecticut after receiving federal recognition. If the Schaghticoke received recognition, they made it clear they would seek to open a casino to help repay the cost of its decades-long battle for federal recognition.
"This is about the fact that they had their land taken by the state of Connecticut and were not compensated," Lieberman said Friday at a press conference.
Lieberman said being involved in this litigation where he's representing the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is what might be called a second chance "to do right by them."
He said over time "the history is clear that they've been treated not only unfairly, but grossly unfairly, and this gives me an opportunity to try and do something about that."
Making amends apparently doesn't come free though. Lieberman confirmed that he's working on a contingency fee like Tighe's firm.
"We'll try to do justice," he added.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General George Jepsen said they are reviewing the complaint "and will respond at the appropriate time in court."
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