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A casino battle royal Buoyed by a recent court ruling, casino foes are determined to keep a gambling hall out of the city

If critics once looked at a group of casino opponents as misguided do-gooders doomed to failure, that no doubt changed Jan. 12.

That's when U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny issued a ruling on the anti-casino group's suit that puts the future of a Buffalo casino in question.

The backers of two lawsuits against the Buffalo casino already have spent nearly a million dollars on their legal challenges, and they say they aren't going away.

"We're an interesting collection of people," said Dianne Bennett, a Buffalo attorney who is president of Citizens for a Better Buffalo. "It sounds corny, but what unites us is pure civic responsibility. Economically, we feel that a casino would be a horrible thing for Buffalo."

Skretny recently ordered the National Indian Gaming Commission to reconsider its 2002 decision allowing the Seneca Nation to run a casino on land it purchased in downtown Buffalo. The judge said the commission must decide and then show how land the Senecas purchased near HSBC Arena is "Indian land" before a casino can be approved.

Seneca President Maurice A. John insists that the ruling is a temporary setback, and he has a powerful advocate on his side -- the U.S. Justice Department.

But Bennett considers the ruling a huge victory that makes her "cautiously optimistic" that the Buffalo casino project is dead.

Although the Senecas say public opinion polls indicate that most Buffalonians support a city casino, Bennett is not alone in her opposition to the project.

She and the others behind the lawsuits are an influential and determined group of people, well stocked with cash and sharp lawyers. They include Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, former Rep. John J. LaFalce, the chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and several ministers from the African-American community.

Other key members are the trustees of a $120 million charitable foundation and Bruce Jackson, a University at Buffalo professor who runs an anti-establishment Website.

The group includes some influential business people, a former chancellor of the state university system, leaders of several organizations morally opposed to casino gambling and people who have no moral problem at all with gambling.

After organizing last year, they assembled a legal team of more than a dozen lawyers, quarterbacked by Buffalo attorney Joseph M. Finnerty, who is assisted by Richard J. Lippes and Robert E. Knoer. They are pursuing lawsuits in both the federal and state courts.

"We feel the Bush administration perverted the law when they gave the Senecas permission to build the Buffalo casino," LaFalce said. "That's why I got involved."

Finnerty said all the lawyers involved are working for less than their normal pay rates, but legal expenses already have topped $900,000.

>Senecas criticize group

The group has drawn criticism from John and other Seneca Nation leaders, who say the casino would benefit the city and the tribe.

"What it comes down to is a small group of people with money paying lawyers to make an issue," said Martin E. Seneca Jr., legal counsel to the Seneca president. "Surveys show a majority of people in Buffalo want a casino. If this group is successful, they're going to deprive the community of something that people would enjoy and would be a boon to the community."

According to Seneca, a Buffalo casino would provide 1,000 to 1,500 jobs with good pay and benefit packages. He said the Indian tribe will spend about $200 million developing a "very depressed area of Buffalo."

"We believe that, ultimately, we will prevail in court," Seneca said. "But they very well could put up roadblocks that won't allow us to continue. If that happens, we'll redirect [money] to Niagara Falls and Salamanca, and Buffalo will lose once again."

Members of the anti-casino group say they believe in their fight and don't care if they are vilified by the Senecas or others who support a Buffalo casino.

"I've talked to a lot of business people who agree with us," said attorney Robert J. Kresse, a member of the group's steering committee. "It's our feeling that the casino would be a disaster for Buffalo, with all kinds of sociological problems that far outweigh any benefits."

In the past six months, Kresse said, he has heard of three "horrible stories" that happened locally related to gambling addiction. "One guy I know of tried to commit suicide, because he's lost so much money. His wife found him in the basement with a gun to his head . . . She stopped him," Kresse said. "Another guy, a barber, retired. But now, he has to go back to work because he lost his life's savings at the casinos. A third guy I know embezzled $200,000 from his workplace and went to jail."

>Funding the fight

Members of the anti-casino group say the lawsuits might be dead without the help of Kresse, Thomas Lunt and Janet Day, trustees of the $120 million Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. The foundation has provided most of the money for the federal and state lawsuits opposing the casino. The Baird Foundation and a number of private donors also have helped.

Kresse said he has no second thoughts about using money from a charitable foundation to fund such lawsuits. He said the Wendt Foundation is a "proactive foundation" intended to benefit the community.

Seneca said he understands why some people are morally opposed to casinos. "But if they are morally opposed, they just shouldn't come," he said.

Seneca raises questions about Giambra's involvement in the anti-casino movement. "We've seen Joel at our Niagara Falls casino quite a few times. I don't see how he can say he's opposed to a casino," Seneca said. "In my opinion, he's doing this for political reasons. He's trying to focus attention on this issue and trying to push all the county's financial problems off the front page."

>Giambra's position

Giambra said he has visited the Senecas' Niagara Falls casino three or four times, mainly because "they have a great steakhouse." He said he occasionally plays low-stakes blackjack but not often. He added that he opposes a Buffalo casino for economic reasons, not for moral reasons.

As the county executive, Giambra said, it is his duty to stand up against things that he believes will hurt county residents.

"I've never said I'm morally against a Buffalo casino," he said. "I'm against it because it's going to drain money away from other entertainment-related businesses in the city that pay taxes. I'm also against it because it's going to become a 'poor people's casino.' The customers will not be tourists. They will be local people who will go there and lose money that they can't afford to lose."

The county executive added: "Other than Sam Hoyt, I'm the only elected official trying to save this community from the demise that would result from a Buffalo casino."

Giambra and several other members of the anti-casino group -- including the Rev. Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Full Gospel Baptist Church -- said they are concerned that the casino site is a short walk from the Perry Homes public housing project.

"I'm against it because I am sure that low-income residents [of Perry Homes] will be some of the most frequent customers of that casino," Pridgen said. "I'm going to wind up ministering to some of these people when the problems of casino gambling tear up their families."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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