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Suit readied to halt casino in Buffalo Wendt Foundation is financing effort

A team of Buffalo attorneys backed by a prominent foundation will file a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to stop the proposed Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

The lawsuit will charge that the federal government did not properly apply three laws that govern the approval process for gambling activities on Indian lands and its responsibility to consider a casino's impact on the community.

"The casino is not a done thing. It's illegal in the City of Buffalo, and we're prepared to get a judge to rule to that effect," said Robert J. Kresse, a trustee with the Wendt Foundation, which will largely finance the effort that also includes significant contributions from other foundations and individuals.

"I think it will suck all the life out of Buffalo, and it just appalls me," said Dianne Bennett, a former managing partner of Hodgson Russ. Bennett is one of a number of prominent Buffalonians backing the lawsuit as a member of the newly formed Citizens for a Better Buffalo. Members met with The Buffalo News editorial board Thursday.

Several religious leaders are expected to confirm their opposition to the casino at a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the law offices of Stenger & Finnerty.

The lawsuit will name various federal officials and agencies as defendants, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, Interior Secretary Gale
Norton and the U.S. National Indian Gaming Commission.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and preservation organizations.

Joseph M. Finnerty of Stenger & Finnerty said more lawsuits may be filed.

Seneca Nation of Indians officials could not be reached to comment Thursday.

The Senecas had a groundbreaking on their 9-acre downtown site near the Cobblestone District on Dec. 8. Seneca leaders said they wanted to begin construction this spring and open a 100,000-square-foot casino complex on New Year's Eve 2006.

The Senecas claim the Seneca Nation Settlement Act offers legal justification for building a casino in Buffalo. The act was cited by Norton when she allowed the Niagara Falls and Buffalo casinos to go forward.

The lawsuit will argue the act does not apply to Buffalo, and that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act should have been implemented instead. That act requires an examination of the possible effects of a casino on a community.

Former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a co-sponsor of the Settlement Act, has written Norton claiming it was never intended to be used for purchasing casinos.

The lawsuit will also charge an environmental assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act, which was conducted in Niagara Falls before the Seneca Niagara Casino opened there, should have been conducted in Buffalo.

And it will claim the federal government failed to follow the Historic Preservation Act, which requires consultation between federal and state preservation officials for properties on or eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The site's H-O Oats grain elevator is eligible for inclusion in the historic register, and there are other historic sites in the district that could be affected by the casino.

"Any one of these [violations], we think, would void the action of [Norton] to allow the casino to be built," said attorney Richard Lippes. "The issues we are raising are very important and solid issues, which I think the court has to consider very seriously."

Finnerty said a lawsuit wasn't filed earlier because of the uncertainty over whether the Senecas would choose land in Buffalo for a casino.. He said a restraining order will be sought to prevent construction while the lawsuit winds through the courts.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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