Federal agents have seized more than 90,000 cartons of cigarettes from a private business run by a prominent Seneca Nation leader in an investigation into allegations of contraband cigarette trafficking.
A government prosecutor said Thursday that the cigarettes have been seized in recent months from a business in Gowanda run by Tribal Councilor Arthur "Sugar" Montour.
"There have been three seizures, and it's the government's position that the cigarettes were involved in violations of the contraband cigarette trafficking act," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard D. Kaufman.
"No criminal charges have been filed. It's strictly a civil case. We have been in touch with Arthur Montour's attorney for discussions on a possible settlement."
Montour, who operates one of the larger tobacco importing and supply businesses in the Seneca Nation, did not return telephone calls seeking his comment.
The cigarettes, which are being held by the government, are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are enough to supply more than 1,300 smokers with two packs a day for an entire year.
According to government documents filed in federal court after one of the seizures, a task force from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been looking into some shipments of cigarettes onto the Senecas' Cattaraugus Reservation.
"Although (a wholesaler) may receive, possess, sell and distribute untaxed cigarettes on the reservation, it must do so in accordance with both federal and New York State law," said J. Steven Waite, an officer in the task force, in court papers.
"If a Native American or any other person receives, possesses, sells or distributes any quantity of untaxed cigarettes in excess of 60,000, from other than a licensed stamping agent in a single transaction, that individual is in violation of federal law."
The proposed taxation of Native American tobacco sales has been a major controversy in recent years for the Senecas and other Native American tribes in the state. Last November, the Pataki administration put off indefinitely its plans to begin tax collections.
Although the tax collections have been put off, state and federal law enforcement agencies have continued to investigate the operations of some Native American tobacco businesses.
In May 2003, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara ruled that federal agents did not act improperly when they seized 3.36 million cigarettes from another Seneca Nation business called the Ojibwas Trading Post.