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Former Seneca leader Mitchell pleads guilty in Lewiston land case

The federal government’s seven-year investigation into former Seneca Nation leader Bergal L. Mitchell III ended Monday with Mitchell’s guilty plea and his agreement to repay money that his family received from a controversial land deal.

Mitchell, a former Seneca Nation tribal councillor and second in charge of Seneca Gaming Corp., admitted lying to the FBI.

As part of a long-awaited plea deal with federal prosecutors, Mitchell stopped short of acknowledging any involvement in setting up the 2006 land deal in Lewiston – the 250 acres is now the Hickory Stick Golf Course – but admitted that his family received nearly $338,000 after the sale.

The plea agreement gives Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to making a false statement, an opportunity to pay back the $338,000 and avoid court-ordered restitution in the same amount.

“He has an opportunity to work this out with the nation,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce.

Despite the core allegation that he was integral in setting up the golf course deal, Mitchell did not acknowledge any role in court Monday, a fact that his lawyer was quick to point out.

“He admits no wrongdoing with regard to the nation,” said defense lawyer Paul J. Cambria Jr. “Those charges will all be dismissed. He did not engage in any fraud on his people.”

It’s not clear what sentence U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara may impose on Mitchell, but the federal sentencing guidelines recommend between 18 and 30 months in prison.

The sentence could hinge on whether Arcara determines that Mitchell’s past leadership positions within the nation should apply to his sentence. The government alleges that Mitchell violated the nation’s trust in him and thinks a longer prison sentence might be warranted.

“He was one of the people, if not the most important person touting this transaction to the Seneca Nation,” Bruce said of Mitchell and the golf course deal.

Mitchell denied orchestrating the land deal but did acknowledge receiving money after it closed and then lying to the FBI about it.

The FBI interviewed Mitchell in 2008 and asked him about money that was transferred into his brother’s bank account and then used to buy a house for their parents.

“He’s returning it voluntarily so there won’t be any more questions,” Cambria said of the money. Cambria also contends that the FBI “coerced” Mitchell into the 2008 interview and created an atmosphere of “failing to tell the truth.”

“The fact remains that Bergal Mitchell pleaded guilty in court to lying to FBI agents," said FBI spokeswoman Maureen P. Dempsey.

Mitchell’s prosecution started as an FBI and IRS investigation into allegations that he cheated his own people by siphoning off $800,000 from the Lewiston land deal.

At the heart of the government’s case was the allegation that Mitchell and an accomplice orchestrated a real estate sale that cost Seneca Gaming $2.1 million, even though only $1.2 million went to the sellers.

While the government’s prosecution of Mitchell wended its way through the court system – he was first indicted in early 2011 – his case has remained on the front burner of Seneca Nation politics and a major thorn in the side of former Seneca President Barry E. Snyder Sr.

Snyder, who was president and chairman of the gaming corporation when the land deal took place and was closely associated with Mitchell, has never been charged and has said in the past that if Mitchell stole money, he had no knowledge of or involvement in the crime. Snyder, who is currently head of Seneca Gaming, declined to comment for this article.

When the grand jury indicted Mitchell, the news that a former Seneca Gaming official had been charged with theft, fraud and money laundering quickly became Topic A among Senecas across the region, in part because it was Mitchell and in part because of the allegation that he stole from the Nation’s casino corporation.

As recently as last fall, in the midst of the race for Seneca president won by Maurice A. “Moe” John, opponents of Snyder’s Seneca Party sent out a newsletter reminding Senecas of the Mitchell prosecution and his past ties to Snyder.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com