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Higgins wants review of Seneca land deals

WASHINGTON Rep. Brian M. Higgins a cautious supporter of a casino in Buffalo Wednesday asked the secretary of the Interior to review the Seneca Nation's land purchase practices to see if they violate the tribe's gambling agreement with New York State.

"What the Senecas are doing appears to be a violation of the spirit of the gaming compact and may be a violation of the compact itself," Higgins said in an interview, echoing language he used in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Following revelations that the tribe's gambling corporations are buying land at market rates and then selling it to the tribe for as little as $1 a parcel, Higgins said he was concerned that the Senecas would end up buying more land than they need for a Buffalo casino.

And that, he said, would violate the tribe's gambling compact with the state.

"The intent [of the gambling compact] was to have a casino as a part of overall economic development, not to allow the Seneca Nation to engage in land speculation," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat whose district includes the casino site.

If that is what is happening, Higgins said, the gambling compact should be reopened and a greater share of the casino's revenues should be directed toward Buffalo.

"Such action seems appropriate in order to mitigate the negative impact of the removal of the acquired land from the tax rolls," Higgins said in his letter to Norton.

Higgins' letter came in response to a Buffalo News story Sunday that revealed the tribe's land-purchase practices in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

In both cities, the tribe's gambling corporations have been buying properties for millions of dollars and selling them to the tribe for $4 or less.

The tribe has refused to comment on its land purchases, although a spokesman said the Senecas would comment on Higgins' letter sometime today.

The land purchases appear to be connected to a congressionally designated $30 million pot that the Senecas can use for land acquisition, bypassing the more cumbersome approval process that tribes usually face when buying land for casinos. By purchasing parcels for $1 apiece, that $30 million could allow the tribe to buy vast amounts of land.

But doing so would violate the tribe's casino deal with the state, Higgins said.

The casino compact specifies that money from that fund designated under the Seneca Nation Settlement Act of 1990 -- can only be spent on casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, along with tribal housing developments nearby or next to the tribe's reservations.

"If the Seneca Nation wants to broaden the scope of that, then we'll be looking at revisions to the compact itself," Higgins said.

Higgins also said he was concerned that vast Seneca land purchases could interfere with the hoped-for revival of Buffalo's waterfront. The first-term congressman has been instrumental in the creation of a new waterfront development corporation and in extracting $279 million from the New York Power Authority to fund waterfront projects.

It's unclear how the Interior Department will answer Higgins' concerns. Departmental spokesmen have refused to respond to repeated inquiries from The Buffalo News regarding the Seneca land purchases.

David Catalfamo, a spokesman for New York Gov. George E. Pataki, also failed to return a call seeking comment.

But Peter Cutler, director of communications for Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, said: "These issues are obviously of concern to the administration."

However, Cutler said the mayor didn't want to make any judgments about the Seneca land deals until he had gathered all the facts about it.

"We've having our attorneys take a comprehensive look at what has transpired and what impact it could have on the city, and what sort of measures we may need to take," Cutler said.


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