WASHINGTON -- Federal Indian gaming experts drafted letters rejecting the Seneca Nation's casino agreement with New York in 2002 and raised serious concerns about the tribe's Buffalo land purchases in 2005, only to be overruled by their superiors in both instances.
Newly revealed documents, which surfaced in the lawsuit that Buffalo casino opponents have filed to try to stop a casino in downtown Buffalo, show the depth of concern within the federal government about projects that nonetheless went forward.
The 2002 letters said the Seneca deal should be rejected because it includes provisions "detrimental to the interests of Indian tribes." But a competing letter, co-written by a political appointee who later went to work for the Senecas' lobbying firm, advocated the deal's approval.
Similarly, a 2005 e-mail from the head of the federal Office of Indian Gaming Management questions whether the Senecas' Buffalo land purchase circumvents federal law, but the deal was allowed to go forward days later.
Casino critics said the documents show that political influence trumped legal considerations in the approval of both the Senecas' 2002 casino deal with the state and their 2005 Buffalo land purchase.
The 2002 documents echo what Kendra Winkelstein, a lawyer for local Indian nations opposed to the deal, heard from federal Indian gambling experts at the time.
"The impression they gave us was that they were very concerned -- but good luck trying to stop a speeding train," said Winkelstein, now also among the lawyers fighting the Buffalo casino.
Several federal Indian gambling experts, however, appeared to try to do just that.
In an undated memo, George Skibine, director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management, listed 13 concerns with the 2002 agreement.
Two of those concerns dominated a draft letter written by Indian Gaming staffer Paula Hart and signed by Nancy Pierskalla, acting assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
The draft letter to the Senecas said the Interior Department was rejecting the casino deal in part because it limited the ability of two other Western New York tribes, the Tonawanda Senecas and the Tuscaroras, to start off-reservation casinos.
"We do not believe that it should be the policy of the [Interior] Department to approve any compact that contains any provisions that are detrimental to the interests of Indian tribes that are not parties to the compact," said the letter, which was dated Oct. 22, 2002.
Pierskalla also criticized the Senecas' plan to build housing near their casinos, saying that was not directly related to gambling and thus impermissible under the federal law that regulates Indian gambling.
At the top of that letter, however, there is a note that says the top lawyer at the Interior Department "has serious doubts that the arguments in this draft . . . are legally defensible. See 'yes' draft discussion of same topics."
The "yes" draft was written a day earlier by Interior lawyer Edith R. Blackwell and Michael G. Rossetti, then counselor to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Noting that the casino deal allows the Tonawanda Senecas and the Tuscaroras to open casinos on their reservations but not elsewhere, the unsigned letter says: "We have reviewed whether this provision meets our trust obligation to Indians, and we conclude that it does."
In the end, Norton did not sign either letter. Instead, on Oct. 24, 2002, she let the deal's review period end without comment, meaning the casino deal took effect automatically.
At the time, Wayne R. Smith, who was deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior until June 2002, said Rossetti led the fight for the casino's approval. Rossetti, a Buffalo native and Republican political appointee with Albany connections, joined Akin Gump, then the Senecas' lobbying firm, in 2004.
Rossetti, Skibine and the other major players in the 2002 Interior Department debate did not return phone calls seeking comment. The Seneca Gaming Corp. declined to comment.
The internal divisions illustrated in those letters recurred in 2005, when the Senecas sought approval for the purchase of the Buffalo casino site.
"I have concerns about this application," Skibine wrote in a Nov. 28, 2005, e-mail to Interior Department lawyers.
In particular, he questioned the complex land transactions surrounding the Senecas' Buffalo land deal.
The tribe's gambling corporation bought the nine-acre site for $4.6 million and then turned around and sold it to the tribe for $4.
That $4 came out of the $30 million the Senecas got under the Seneca Nation Settlement Act for land purchases.
After recounting the land transactions, Skibine asked: "The question is: Is the Nation circumventing the intent of the Seneca Settlement Act?"
Despite that question, the Interior Department quickly approved the land purchase.
"George Skibine suddenly realizes there could be a fundamental, organic problem here -- and yet the deal goes through four days later," said Joseph M. Finnerty, the lead lawyer in the anti-casino lawsuit.
Both the 2002 letters and the 2005 e-mail show deep divisions between the career professionals who supervise Indian gambling matters and the political appointees who have control over them, Finnerty said.
"It's a symptom of what appears to be a rabid infection at the Department of the Interior, which has transmitted the infection to Buffalo," Finnerty said.