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Casino suit cites lawyers' impropriety

An "intimate personal relationship" between a high-ranking government lawyer and a Seneca Nation lawyer tainted the federal government's approval of a casino in downtown Buffalo, according to new court papers.

The allegations by casino opponents, outlined in papers filed Thursday, suggest the relationship is part of a larger and "unmistakable picture of egregious bad faith and improper conduct at the highest levels" of government.

The papers were filed as part of a lawsuit seeking to end gambling at the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. Plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to order the release of documents previously withheld by the government.

"It smells," said John J. LaFalce, a former congressman and member of the group suing to stop the casino. "It stinks to high heaven."

The group, Citizens Against Casino Gambling in Erie County, is alleging that a personal relationship between Edith R. Blackwell, a lawyer in the Department of the Interior, and Michael Rossetti, a private lawyer representing the Senecas, resulted in a serious conflict of interest.

Their relationship, according to court papers, "infected" the integrity of the government process that led to approval of the Buffalo casino.

The papers accuse Blackwell of removing herself from the Seneca review process and later reinserting herself into it. They also suggest Blackwell was the principal drafter of a 2009 legal opinion that supported the downtown casino.

"She recused herself and then unrecused herself," said LaFalce.

Rossetti could not be reached to comment, and Blackwell referred all questions to an Interior Department spokeswoman. The Senecas also declined to comment.

"The Department of the Interior and the Office of the Solicitor comply with all government ethics laws and did so in this case," said spokeswoman Kate Kelly. "Through the Department of Justice, we will be filing appropriate responsive pleadings with the court in this matter."

The allegations against Blackwell and Rossetti center around what court papers describe as a personal relationship that has grown increasingly intimate over the years.

"She owns a home with him," LaFalce said. "She lives with him. She holds a joint checking account with him."

Court papers also point to a series of Interior Department e-mails to suggest that Blackwell intervened on the Senecas' behalf despite recusing herself from the review.

"The imputed conflict of interest is clear," the papers state. "The appearance of serious impropriety is obvious."

The court papers are not the first time Rossetti has been criticized by casino opponents.

A Buffalo native, he was a Republican political appointee who, before joining Akin Gump, the Senecas' Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm, served as counsel to then-Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.

When Norton expressed concern over the casino deal, government officials said it was Rossetti who helped push it through.

In 2004, a former Interior official told The News it was Rossetti who suggested that Norton simply let the casino deal take effect without her formal approval.

"It was always just his idea," said Wayne Smith, deputy assistant interior secretary at the time. "He never said somebody wanted it done."

More than a year later, Rossetti joined Akin Gump.

From Day One, Interior officials have argued that Rossetti and the department did nothing wrong.

"We adhered to our process," an Interior spokesman said in 2002, "and a review will show that we did nothing inappropriate."

The plaintiffs' court papers suggest otherwise.

They point to a 2006 report by Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, who found an "institutional culture of managerial irresponsibility and lack of accountability" at Interior.

"He's the one who said, 'short of a crime, anything goes,' " said LaFalce. "I think Gale Norton just held her nose and let it happen."

With those allegations in mind, LaFalce's group will ask U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny to force the government to release documents and information it has so far refused to disclose.

"It would be good," LaFalce said, "to know who was saying what."

In court papers, the citizens group suggests that Interior improperly withheld documents as part of what LaFalce called a coverup.

"The emerging facts," the papers state, "paint an unmistakable picture of egregious bad faith and improper conduct, including conflicts of interest and the clear appearance (at a minimum) of impropriety, partiality and favoritism at the highest levels."

The allegations against Blackwell and Rossetti are the latest chapter in a lawsuit that dates back to 2006 and challenges the federal government's issuance of a gambling ordinance that allowed a small downtown casino to open a year later.

They also come just a week after Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter announced plans to build a larger casino downtown. For nearly three years, a rusting steel framework of a casino has sat idle on Seneca-owned land near Michigan and South Park avenues.

The Senecas scrapped the $333 million project in 2008, citing the lawsuit and financial issues. The nation currently operates a small slot machine-only facility at the site.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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