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Judge upholds ruling against Seneca casino

A federal judge delivered another legal blow late Friday to the Seneca Nation of Indians' plans for a gambling casino in downtown Buffalo.

In a 14-page ruling, District Judge William M. Skretny refused to overturn his January decision ordering a federal commission to reconsider the tribe's casino agreement with the state.

The decision is anything but good news for the Senecas, who have been building a small temporary casino, which they hope to open this year near HSBC Arena.

"For us, this is a very positive decision," said Joseph M. Finnerty, lead attorney for a group that opposes a Buffalo casino. "We don't believe there is any legal basis for the Senecas to acquire land in Buffalo and conducting gambling operations on it."

Is the Buffalo casino dead?

"Absolutely not," said Philip Pantano, spokesman for Seneca Gaming Corp. "We're certainly not surprised by this decision. The odds of a judge reversing himself are not high. Our goals for a development in Buffalo have not changed."

Officials of the U.S. Justice Department could not be reached to comment after the decision was issued late Friday afternoon. Justice Department lawyers have been arguing the case against casino opponents.

In an interview with The Buffalo News earlier this month, Seneca President Maurice A. John Sr. said he could not predict what will happen.

"I only hope the state realizes the impact it's going to have on Buffalo if a judge breaks the compact," John said. "If the people of Buffalo don't want our casino, don't want the profits, don't want the jobs, that's unfortunate."

Casino opponents represented by Finnerty insist that the U.S. Interior Department acted improperly when it allowed the Senecas to go forward with a 2002 casino agreement with the state. Land purchased by the Senecas in Buffalo cannot legally be called "Indian lands" and can never legally be used for gambling, the opponents maintain.

The Senecas and the federal government argue that all the actions taken by the Interior Department were proper under the law. Even after Skretny's January ruling, the Senecas have continued construction of a 5,000-square-foot temporary casino at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street.

Later, the tribe hopes to build a much larger casino that would employ 1,000 people.

Casino opponents say their legal action only involves the proposed Buffalo casino. They have not sought to shut down Seneca casinos already in operation in Niagara Falls and Salamanca.

The government can appeal the ruling to the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court and, ultimately, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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