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Cuomo threatens new casino in Niagara Falls; Senecas call it 'foolish'

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday doubled down on his threat to locate a new casino in the Niagara Falls area in response to the Seneca Nation halting revenue sharing payments from its casino in the Falls.

“They’re not fulfilling the compact and their right to exclusive gaming is gone,’’ Cuomo said Tuesday afternoon after an economic development event in Rochester.

“I have no doubt that we would get companies from around the world to bid on casino rights in the Buffalo/Niagara area. I have no doubt,’’ Cuomo said. “Look, we could potentially create more jobs with a different operator.’’

"Foolish," responded the leader of the Senecas.

"It will do poorly," Seneca Nation President Todd Gates said later. "The market is saturated."

Gates and his attorney, Dennis Vacco, accused the governor of scuttling a planned meeting to deal with the dispute by leaking information about an investigation of a listening device found in an office at the Seneca casino Buffalo.

Gates accused the governor of “disparaging us all of the time.’’

“I’m mad for the Seneca Nation,’’ he said.

The Seneca Nation leader poked at Cuomo and talk of a possible 2020 White House run. “The statements he keeps making out there are false. He has aspirations for a higher office … People have to look at how he’s acting now,’’ Gates said.

As recently as Monday, said Gates, his staff had met with Cuomo security officials to plan talks in Niagara Falls to take place during the governor’s Tuesday visit to Western New York.

That meeting, like all other planned meetings between the two leaders, never took place, Gates said during an afternoon news conference at the Seneca Nation offices on the Cattaraugus Territory.

“There was an eclipse yesterday. Maybe that changed his attitude,’’ Gates said of Cuomo.

In addition, Vacco, a former state attorney general, criticized Cuomo for what citing an Erie County district attorney probe — which Vacco determined was baseless during his own investigation of the incident — as a reason for scuttling Tuesday's planned meeting between Gates and Cuomo.

“Whatever the DA’s Office is up to, that information was inappropriately leaked,’’ Vacco said. “It is clear to me the leak came from the governor’s office. It’s inappropriate. It’s wrong.”

“It’s being used as a unfortunate shield from getting down to doing the tough work with the Seneca Nation. It underscores the fact that the excuse for not meeting with the Nation was really a subterfuge,’’ the former attorney general added.

A Cuomo official on Monday told The Buffalo News the state will explore locating a new casino in Niagara Falls if the Senecas don’t resume revenue sharing payments from its three casinos — an amount that exceeded $110 million in 2016. Cuomo confirmed that Tuesday.

While there have been concerns from existing upstate casinos that the gambling market has become saturated, Cuomo signaled he does not share those concerns.

Cuomo to Senecas: Continue payments or state will put a casino in Niagara Falls

The governor, who faced a gambling revenue dispute with the Senecas in the first two years of his administration, said the facts in the Seneca compact matter are “very simple.’’

“If they do not pay the payments they’re supposed to pay under the compact, then the compact is gone, and that’s where we are now,’’ he said.

The Senecas, though, point to language in the casino compact that requires them to pay the revenue sharing money only through the 14th year of the compact. That period expired at the end of 2016, the Senecas maintain.

The compact provides for dispute resolution to be settled through arbitration, but neither side has activated that route.

Cuomo also said it would be “inappropriate” for him to meet with Seneca leaders while the Erie County District Attorney’s Office has an active criminal investigation underway of the tribe’s Buffalo casino. A source with knowledge of the matter said that officials with the state Gaming Commission, which regulates casinos in New York, last year discovered a listening device in a room at the Buffalo casino set aside for the state regulators.

Municipalities upstate feel the pinch as Senecas end casino payments

Gates on Monday criticized Cuomo for refusing to meet with him and said the prosecutor's investigations of an employee at the Seneca Gaming Authority is “a completely unrelated legal issue” than the compact dispute.

Gates said Cuomo had shown a “blatant disregard” for the compact and the thousands of jobs the Seneca Nation created at its three casinos in the region.

Cuomo in Rochester today said the 2002 compact, along with a 2013 amendment, gave the Senecas rights to exclusively offer casino gambling in a large area of Western New York. In turn, the tribe must share its slot machine revenues, he said.

“We’ve been through this with them before,’’ he said of a dispute settled in 2013 after several years in which the Seneca Nation withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue payments to the state.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who has walked a fine line in the dispute between the large employer in his city and Cuomo, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon praising the governor.

“Anyone who has followed this issue and the hard line taken by the Seneca Nation knows that there was the possibility that the state would take this position. We know that the governor has the best interests of Niagara Falls and its residents at heart, and we remain confident that when this matter is resolved that those interests will be taken care of,'' Dyster said.

Cuomo's threat to find a new casino developer cannot be immediately carried out. The state in 2013 OK'd a statute permitting an initial round of new casinos upstate that would be limited to four licenses. All four licenses have since been awarded, meaning Cuomo would need the Legislature to approve a new measure allowing a fifth commercial casino to go upstate. Lawmakers don't return to Albany until January.

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