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Ex-Seneca Nation leader Bergal Mitchell sentenced to probation in golf course land deal

For the golfers who took advantage of a beautiful summer day Thursday and played Seneca Hickory Stick, the 18-hole public course in Lewiston, the name Bergal Mitchell III may not mean a thing.

But it was Mitchell, a former Seneca Nation leader, who once stood charged with secretly engineering the land sale that led to the Seneca-owned golf course.

Prosecutors also accused him of skimming money off the top.

Five years after he was first charged, the former Seneca tribal councilor was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to two years of probation.

“To be frank, I want to apologize and try to make amends with the Seneca Nation,” Mitchell told Arcara. “I just want to be the best Seneca I can.”

Mitchell never acknowledged any involvement in the 2006 land deal but, as part of a plea deal last year, admitted his family received nearly $338,000 after the sale.

The plea agreement also gives Mitchell an opportunity to pay back the money and avoid court-ordered restitution in the same amount.

Mitchell, who once served as second in charge of Seneca Gaming Corp., admitted lying to the FBI and, in the end, pleaded guilty to only one charge – making a false statement.

“He didn’t take anything from the Seneca Nation,” said defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. “He in no way did anything wrong with regard to the Nation.”

Cambria maintains Mitchell’s money came from other people involved in the land deal and in no way affected the amount paid by the Senecas. He also claims there was testimony in a separate civil case involving the golf course that proved his client never defrauded the Nation.

Mitchell’s sentence brings an end to a seven-year investigation that, over the years, became a front-burner political issue in the Nation and a constant thorn in the side of former Seneca President Barry E. Snyder Sr.

Snyder, who was president and chairman of the gaming corporation when the land deal took place and was closely associated with Mitchell, has never been charged. He has said in the past that if Mitchell stole money, he had no knowledge of or involvement in the crime.

In sentencing Mitchell to probation instead of prison, Arcara pointed to his cooperation with prosecutors, most notably in a fraud case involving untaxed overseas cigarettes in Kentucky. Mitchell testified at a trial that ended with several convictions and a $19 million judgment for the government.

“It was a significant, multimillion-dollar fraud case,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney James P . Kennedy.

In asking for a nonprison sentence, Cambria said his client was recently diagnosed with a serious illness that requires frequent CT cans and MRIs. He declined to comment later when asked about the nature of his illness, but Mitchell was wearing a bandage around his head during Thursday’s court appearance.

At the heart of the government’s case was the allegation that Mitchell and others cheated the Seneca Nation by siphoning off $800,000 from the 250-acre land deal.

In its 2011 indictment, prosecutors alleged that Mitchell and an accomplice orchestrated a real estate sale that cost Seneca Gaming $2.1 million, even though only $1.2 million went to the sellers.

Mitchell is not the only one convicted because of the land deal.

Timothy Toohey, a Democratic Party insider, was sentenced to 33 months in prison for his role in the controversial sale. The former lawyer admitted stealing $202,000 from the Senecas.

As part of his plea deal with prosecutors, Toohey also implicated Mitchell and said the two of them tried to conceal their illegal activity from Seneca leaders.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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