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County mulling litigation against state, Mohawks

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By RYNE R. MARTIN

CANTON - County officials have offered the towns of Brasher and Massena to join them if they pursue legal action in an effort to recoup

unpaid gaming compact money.

The county legislature had agreed in early August to hire the Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, to advise the county and to represent it should it decide to sue.

The towns of Brasher and Massena are now being invited to join the county if they opt to take legal action in their effort to get their gaming compact monies. “We were not hired to start a lawsuit against the Mohawks. We were hired to review all the facts, circumstances and laws and then apprise the county legislature of our findings,” attorney Kevin C. Murphy of the Wladis Law Firm told members of the Brasher Town Board via teleconference at a board meeting earlier this month.

He said one option would be for the county to take no steps and wait for the situation to play out. “It appears there will be no resolution likely in the near future, two to three years, given the state’s strategy,” Mr. Murphy said.

The county could also also attempt to negotiate with the various parties at the table, but he cautioned there would be no steps the county could take to trigger three-party negotiations.

A third option would be to seek direct negotiations between the county, the towns of Massena and Brasher and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. He said his firm met with the tribe’s general counsel this summer. “We had a conversation about the circumstances and listend to their views. They confirmed it was unlikely the dispute would be resolved any time soon, that the state is addressing issues with the tribes in Western New York first,” Mr. Murphy told Brasher Town Board members.

He said the tribe’s counsel also indicated the tribal chiefs felt there were a number of issues that would need to be resolved before they would be willing to consider making payments directly to the county - having the county lobby for the Mohawk’s position on a number of issues ranging from land claims to assistance in convincing the New York Power Authority in make annual payments to the tribe and to support the tribe’s position that the redevelopment of the former General Motors site be done in an environmentally correct manner.

“We reported back those issues to the county board and the consensus was the demands from the counsel for the tribe were not things the county was prepared to make public declarations on. It didn’t look right, feel right,” he noted during his teleconference with town board members.

Mr. Murphy said if the county opts to move forward with a lawsuit his firm is recommending they sue the state and the Mohawks. “We are confident the the county will have status as a third-party beneficiary. It was clear .... the intent of the gaming compact, a contract between the state of New York and the Mohawks, was the counties and the towns would receive a benefit from the contract,” he noted.

He said the county wanted to see if the towns of Brasher and Massena wanted to join with the county before county officials make a final determination on litigation. Mr. Murphy said the county was amenable that if monies were received - potentially up to $17.5 million - the proceeds would be split using the same formula included in the tribal compact - 50 percent to the county and 25 percent each to the towns.

Mr. Murphy predicted the cost to the town of Brasher over the next 12 months would be $25,000 to $35,000. “Beyond that, $60 to 85K. It’s always difficult to calculate costs,” he acknowledged.

“The county did not want to proceed without talking to the towns, without open communication about what you want to do. I’m not here to twist your arms,” he stressed during his teleconference with the Brasher board.

Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson asked if the other parties benefitting from the tribal compact - Franklin County and the towns of Bombay - would be involved if legal action is taken against the tribe and state.

“My understanding is the two counties do not agree on how to deal with this issue. Franklin County is not at all interested in commencing litigation,” Mr. Murphy responded during the teleconference earlier this month.

In June, legislators and county officials met with a representative of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to state their case for the more than $12 million that is owed to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington. Under a deal between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the money represents the counties’ and towns’ combined share of proceeds from the reservation’s casino.

The money has been held in escrow because of a exclusivity dispute St. Regis Mohawks have with a slot machine operation on Ganienkeh Territory in Altona, but Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, believes another factor is also in play.

“This issue is about taxation of cigarettes and over casinos run by others,” he said in August. “Everything’s tied together. Relying on gambling money is a problem.”

County officials met this summer with tribal representatives, including newly elected chief Paul O. Thompson. Included in the talks were whether the tribe and county could work their own deal.

As the compact money has not been forthcoming for last year and this year, the county’s budget along with those of the towns of Brasher and Massena have suffered. County Legislature Chair Sallie Brothers said a committee of legislators would meet with the attorneys and determine whether a lawsuit makes sense. The total cost to the county might run $50,000 to $100,000 depending on whom is sued and how it is handled, she said in August. Wladis was retained on an unspecified per hour basis.

The county’s decision to join forces with Wladis applies only to itself, but other municipalities affected will be welcome to join if they want to share the cost, she said.

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