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New York City or WNY? Cuomo, Senecas disagree on where casino arbitration case should be heard

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Seneca Nation, their relations souring by the day, can’t even agree on where an arbitration panel should meet to settle the casino payment dispute.

The Seneca Nation on Thursday called for the three-member artitration panel to handle the months' long disagreement in the “locus of the dispute:” Western New York.

Cuomo wants the panel's meetings in New York City.

The 21-page submission by the Senecas offered an at-times fiery condemnation of the Cuomo administration, saying it has “aggressively tried this case in the press,’’ used a verbal “slur” against the Native American tribe, made “naked threats” against the Seneca Nation’s economy and used “demonstrably inaccurate assertions” to describe the dispute.

In a separate written statement, Seneca President Todd Gates went further.

"For the State to say that the Nation was not willing to meet is a blatant lie and the height of hypocrisy,’’ Gates said of assertions by the Cuomo administration that the Senecas would not meet to resolve the matter.

The arbitration submission included a series of letters written this year by Gates to Cuomo, as well as Gates’ aides to Cuomo officials, asking for a meeting between the New York and Seneca leaders.

Once willing to negotiate with Cuomo, the Seneca leader indicated that time is over.

“Arbitration will allow the facts, not the governor’s fictional narrative, to stand on their own,’’ Gates said.

Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said the state’s position is unchanged.

“The Senecas have an obligation to pay in exchange for exclusivity and since they breached their obligation, they breached the compact,’’ he said.

The submission by the Senecas to the American Arbitration Association – written by the tribe’s deputy general counsel and lawyers from three private law firms – shed little new light on the dispute that began in the spring when the Senecas said it was halting quarterly revenue-sharing payments to the state.

The terms of a 2002 compact giving the Senecas casino exclusivity in a large area of upstate called for revenue sharing payments on a sliding scale that eventually hit 25 percent of slot machine revenues at its three casinos. For most of the period since, the state kept three quarters of the money and shared, by law, 25 percent with local communities in Western New York. Some 15 percent of Niagara Falls city government’s operating revenues now depend on the Seneca payments.

But the Seneca Nation, pointing to the wording of the 2002 compact, says the document is silent about payments after the deal’s 14th year. The state, however, insists that the exclusivity arrangement is tied to the ongoing payments. Since 2002, the Senecas have paid Albany more than $1.4 billion. While the payment stoppage – worth about $110 million last year -- has had little effect on the state’s $163 billion budget, it has squeezed some localities, schools and other groups that got a share of the local pie.

In arbitration, the state and Seneca Nation each gets one direct appointee to the panel. Those appointees then name a third panel member. There is no timetable for appointments, meetings or decisions, and any final arbitration award can be challenged by either side in federal court in Buffalo.

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