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Senecas join pro-casino lawyer to fire back at LaFalce

A Washington lawyer accused by Buffalo casino opponents of unethical conduct fired back Tuesday, and the president of the Seneca Nation of Indians joined in his defense.

Michael G. Rossetti is rebutting comments and legal arguments leveled by former Rep. John J. LaFalce, part of a group suing in U.S. District Court to block gambling in downtown Buffalo. Last week, LaFalce contended that Rossetti's role in the matter "stinks to high heaven."

Meanwhile, Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter issued a statement asserting that any accusation of conspiracy or conflict of interest "smacks of desperation and misdirection."

Rossetti and Porter said that there is no evidence of ethics violations by anyone representing the federal government or the Seneca Nation.

"Mr. LaFalce should know better than to make extrajudicial statements, which are clearly aimed at attempting to prejudice the court," said Rossetti, a former federal prosecutor in Buffalo who now works for the Akin Gump lobbying firm in Washington. "The rules of professional conduct that apply to lawyers who practice law in the State of New York require more of him than he may think."

The continuing conflict stems from federal court papers filed this month alleging that an "intimate personal relationship" between government lawyer Edith R. Blackwell and Rossetti tainted the federal government's approval of the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo. The allegation suggests that 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 casino. Plaintiffs also are asking a federal judge to order the release of documents previously withheld by the government.

Rossetti criticized the group's allegations and a Friday account of its actions in The Buffalo News as an unnecessary invasion of privacy, insisting that all legal and ethical regulations prescribed by the federal government were observed.

He especially objected to the group's assertion of an "intimate personal relationship" affecting the outcome of the case. He said the papers' mention of his owning a home together with Blackwell and making joint charitable contributions stem from the fact that he and Blackwell have been married since 2007.

"Edith Blackwell and I make donations to charities, because we are a married couple," he said, "a fact not even alluded to either in the filing or The News story -- that also explains why we own a home together and live together, as many married couples are wont to do."

Court papers filed by the opponents also point to a series of Interior Department e-mails suggesting 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."

Before joining Akin Gump, the Senecas' Washington lobbying firm, Rossetti served as counsel to then-Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. When Norton expressed concern over the casino deal, government officials said that it was Rossetti who helped push it through.

But Rossetti pointed out Tuesday that Earl E. Devaney, Interior's inspector general, issued a report in 2004 finding no improper conduct and so informed LaFalce, who retired from the House in January 2003 after serving 14 terms. Rossetti said similar findings were issued during another review in 2007.

He also contended that Devaney's 2006 report cited in the filing and The News article Friday dealt with a different matter involving the Minerals Management Service and had no bearing on the issue of the Seneca compact.

"Since my departure from the Department of the Interior, all appropriate recusals have been in place to safeguard our responsibilities as lawyers, and to ensure that there is no appearance of impropriety," Rossetti said of any roles played by Blackwell and him.

He also defended Norton's conduct in the process.

"As she did in all such matters, Secretary Gale Norton made an honorable, intelligent and informed decision regarding the compact approval," Rossetti said.

Porter said the Seneca Nation could never have exerted the influence alleged by the casino opponents.

"The powers attributed to the Seneca Nation are fanciful at best," he said, adding that the anti-casino group's complaints were raised and addressed as far back as 2002.

"It's simply a weak and transparent effort to obscure the legal case," he said. "The law is in the government's favor, and thus the Seneca Nation's, and this case will be judged on the merits of that law."

Porter reiterated that he expects that Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino will move forward with "a new, more collaborative design" that will be integrated with local development along the Buffalo River and the shoreline of Lake Erie.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com