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Leading a nation against a state New Seneca president vows to resist efforts to tax gas or cigarette sales to non-Indians

Eliot Spitzer promises to take on the biggest and most powerful interests in state government when he takes office on New Year's Day.

But an unlikely leader on a reservation south of Buffalo may prove to be Spitzer's biggest political foe.

He's known as Moe John.

And their fight is likely to have fallout in Buffalo.

Maurice A. John, the Seneca Nation of Indians' new president, will go head-to-head with Spitzer if the new governor reverses state policy and taxes reservation gasoline and cigarette sales to non-Senecas.

Those who know John, 58, say he won't blink first in any battle with Spitzer.

"Moe's not going to start a fight with the state," said former Seneca President Dennis Bowen, John's first cousin and close friend, "but he'll never back away, either."

As president, John also will battle a federal lawsuit and fierce opposition as the Senecas try to build a third casino, Seneca Buffalo Creek, a few hundred yards east of HSBC Arena.

He will be held to campaign pledges to improve the lives of tribal members, including those who still live in drafty trailers and run-down houses on the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations, despite the tens of millions of dollars the Seneca Nation earns from its casinos.

And he will try to do all this while healing wounds from last month's bitter election, a victory his critics say he won by buying votes on an unprecedented scale. John's Seneca Party swept all elected offices, beating former president Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. and his Seneca Alliance Party.

Even on reservations where candidates openly pay voters the 2006 election will go down as one of the Senecas' most expensive contests:

John's critics, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, say the Seneca Party flew in hundreds of tribal members from various parts of the country, paid them as much as $1,200 each, and gave them free rooms at the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel.

John's ally Barry Snyder Sr., as both president of the Seneca Nation and chairman of its gambling operations, ordered a bloc of 62 rooms set aside for the out-of-town voters, who also ate free at casino restaurants, according to a casino source.

The Seneca Party paid Senecas living on the reservations $50 each for their votes, more for families, several Seneca sources said, while those living off the reservation in such cities as Buffalo, Erie and Jamestown, were bused in and paid up to $250 each. Some voters collected from both parties, the sources said, though the Seneca Alliance Party paid far less.

The Seneca Party put the arm on contractors who helped build the Seneca casinos and are looking to bid on the Buffalo Creek Casino, another Seneca source said, telling them they had to donate $50,000 each to John's campaign.

Use of casino funds in the election is illegal, according to a lawsuit filed in the tribe's Peacemakers Court by Senecas for Preservation and Justice, and Mothers of the Nation.

But the two groups were rebuffed in their attempts to overturn the election when their lawsuit was dismissed.

Seneca Nation officials said the lawsuit was frivolous and denied any wrongdoing.

>Served jail time

Moe John showed what he thought of non-Indians taxing Indians by going to jail in November 1990.

John not only refused to pay taxes on the millions of dollars he made selling tax-free gasoline on the Allegany Reservation in the 1980s, he refused to answer a judge's questions about how much gas he sold and went to jail for contempt.

The judge finally released John after it was clear he would not talk. John told supporters protesting outside U.S. District Court he was a prisoner of war.

"And as such," he said, "I gave my name, Ha Nang Gan Go, and that I am an Indian, and I always will be an Indian."

Friends and foes say John has not mellowed over the years. He still believes that Senecas owe not a penny in taxes to governments that took their lands.

He and his wife, Karen, still refuse to pay their tax bill, and owe the Internal Revenue Service a combined $9.1 million, plus interest, according to publicly filed judgments.

Like his long hair still in a traditional Seneca ponytail, John wears his federal tax lien as a badge of honor. Many of the Senecas' 7,200 members see him as a hero for his defiance.

He believes strongly in Seneca traditions and has had a lifetime of protest.

He was arrested for ripping up surveyor stakes when the Southern Tier Expressway went through the Allegany Reservation. He filed a federal suit saying Salamanca had no right to require permits because his business was on Seneca territory. A judge disagreed.

Carson Waterman, a nationally known Seneca artist whose body of work includes the Southern Tier Expressway route signs and the Seneca Nation's logo, considers John a friend.

"I admire him because he's willing to take a stand," Waterman said. "Moe is soft-spoken, very mellow when you talk to him. But he's also a man who will take action. . . . I think [the Seneca] people see him as somebody who will stand up to the new governor."

>Early distrust

Friends say John's distrust of the government came early, as he was growing up in the town of Onoville on the Allegany Reservation.

His family and hundreds of other Senecas were ordered off their land and their houses were burned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make way for the building of the Kinzua Dam in the 1960s.

"Moe and I come from a place that is now underwater," said Bowen, the former Seneca president. "People in our age group went through that whole experience with the dam."

John graduated from Salamanca High School, where he was a power hitter on the baseball team, and briefly attended Niagara University.

He served four years in the Air Force, was discharged as a sergeant, and returned to the reservation to open a leather and crafts store.

Finding it hard to make a living, John started selling tax-free cigarettes and gasoline on the Allegany Reservation, the same thing Barry Snyder Sr. was doing on the Cattaraugus Reservation.

Both men ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, and the IRS filed multimillion-dollar liens against them for failing to pay the federal tax on gasoline.

>Judgments on file

But while Snyder later settled his IRS taxes for an undisclosed amount, John refused and remains liable for the taxes to this day. Other than filing the judgment, the IRS has never made any move to collect.

The tax lien against John is filed in the Cattaraugus County Courthouse in Little Valley. Also filed there is a $92,000 judgment against him from the county's Family Court.

John is accused in that document of failing to pay child support to a woman who lives in Little Valley.

The woman did not return telephone calls for comment, and John did not respond to a list of written questions from The Buffalo News. His secretary said John would not be available for an interview until at least Jan. 1.

John's critics on the reservation say that, while he has stood up to the government in the past, he has been changed by his two terms as a Seneca councillor, Peacemaker Court judge, and his recent term as treasurer in Snyder's administration.

"He's an insult to himself," said Edna Gordon, 85, an outspoken tribal elder, author and member of the two groups that sued to overturn the election. "They're all bad in the Seneca Party. They won not by merit. They won by threatening people that they'll lose their jobs. They bought the election, and they always do."

Gordon said of John's political involvement: "He's always been in it for the money."

After his election as treasurer, critics claim John fired as many as 100 workers, but named his wife as head of the Seneca mortgage office and found another job for one of his two sons.

John's friends say the number of fired workers is exaggerated, but also said it is common for new Seneca administrations to name their own employees.

Joyce W. Cruz also belongs to the two organizations that sued John. She said she used to admire John because he stood up to the white established government.

"I don't admire him anymore because I think Moe has been corrupted," Cruz said.

The Seneca Alliance Party claimed during the campaign that elected officials received $2,000 a month in comps from the casino and said the Seneca Party used these freebies to win votes.

Since he became president last month, a casino source said, John has stayed twice at the hotel's new penthouse suite, $3,000-a-night rooms that take up half the 27th floor overlooking the Falls. Seneca officials do not pay to stay at the casino's hotel.

>Dinner difference

John's friends say that's an inaccurate picture, describing him as a man without pretense.

Seneca businesswoman Sally Snow has known John for 18 years. She considers him to be much more down-to-earth and humble than his predecessor, Barry Snyder Sr.

"I remember when Barry had his victory dinner after he won the election for president," Snow said. "When the food came out, Barry was the first one to eat . . . "

"At Moe's dinner," she said, "Moe stood back and waited until every person got their food before he went and got anything to eat. Moe is a different person than Barry."

John visited a number of homes on the reservations during the campaign, Snow said, and was upset by what he saw.

She said he became emotional describing his visit to one family in a battered trailer that had nothing but a sheet of plastic covering the back door.

"It really bothered him,," Snow said. "He told me there is no way in hell that anyone in the Seneca Nation should be living in a place like that."

Snow said John got the Seneca council to authorize $100,000 in housing aid.

Snow feels John was elected because he was the best person to go up against Spitzer if the he tries to tax Seneca cigarette and gasoline sales to non-Senecas.

Spitzer, as attorney general, forced agreements with credit card companies and commercial shippers to limit the Senecas' off-reservation tobacco business.

Bowen hopes that veteran state legislators will steer Spitzer away from taking steps that could result in violence. Twice in recent years, Senecas have battled State Police over the tax.

"The risk of violence will always be there. Whether it happens now or 80 years from now, we need to hope cooler heads will prevail," Bowen said. "Our people will stand up. It's Moe's time. It's Moe's turn."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com

***

Profile / Maurice Allen John Sr., New Seneca Nation President

Born: May 1, 1948, Onoville, Allegany Reservation

Education: 1966 graduate of Salamanca High School, attended Niagara University.

Service: US Air Force, munitions specialist, discharged as sergeant.

Experience: One of first Senecas to sell tax-free gasoline and cigarettes. Two terms Seneca Nation councillor, Peacemaker Court of Appeals judge, immediate past nation treasurer.

Memberships: Founding member of Seneca Diabetes Foundation; member of National Council for the Museum of the American Indian; member of Remember the Removal, a Seneca Kinzua Dam organization.

Significant Events: As high school student, family was forced off land and home burned by Army Corps of Engineers for Kinzua Dam; arrested in 1980s for ripping up surveyors' stakes for Southern Tier Expressway through Allegany Reservation; charged with failing to obtain Salamanca building permits, filed federal lawsuit arguing Senecas owned land and no permits were needed; jailed in 1990 by federal judge for refusing to answer questions on how much tax-free gas he sold; in 1994, along with his wife, Karen, hit with $9.1 million IRS tax liens, still unpaid.

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