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Defense attorney says Three Feathers verdict was not ruling on legality of casino

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AKWESASNE - This week’s acquittal of three men charged in federal court with illegally operating the Three Feathers Casino should not be perceived as a ruling on the legality of the casino, according a defense attorney involved in the trial.

Mike McDermott, an Albany-based lawyer who defended Joseph Hight, the Atlanta provider of the casino’s gambling devices, said the prosecution simply failed to prove that the defendants acted with criminal intent because Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne, or the Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Flint, only pushed forward with the casino after seeking approval from a lawyer on the project.

Mr. Hight and Hogansburg residents William Roger Jock and Thomas Angus Square were found not guilty Thursday by a federal court jury of operating an illegal casino on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

“Whether [the lawyer] was accurate or not is besides the point,” said Mr. McDermott. “Their understanding was that they were authorized. They acted in good faith.”

But Longhouse clerk and media liason Chaz Kader explained it’s much more than legal opinion that drove the council to open a casino. It was about creating jobs outside major tribal governments and generating revenue to assist Native Americans who fall outside the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and its Canadian counterpart across the border.

According to Mr. Kader, the tribe only assists those they recognize as Indians, and the People of the Men’s Council aren’t accorded that recognition. While some accused them of being “anarchists” in their gambling venture, members of the Men’s Council pushed forward to stress their claim to the land and their heritage as Natives, Mr. Kader said.

“They’re only here temporarily,” Mr. Kader said of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s government. “We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here after. The Longhouse thinks we’re under attack. We have to make the point that it’s our land.”

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council is the only governing body on the reservation recognized by the state and federal government.

Mr. Kader also referenced a long history of gambling and casinos on reservation land, accusing media representatives of having a short memory on the gambling issue. He said the Longhouse was involved with gambling regulation when it first began, and as many as 17 different families owned casinos across the reservation before the tribe went into business with New York state.

Originally the tribe promised that those facilities could someday reopen, Mr. Kader said, and it was this history, paired with the defendants’ selfless intent for casino revenu,e that won over the jury.

Despite this, he thinks it is unlikely that the Men’s Council will attempt to reopen the casino as long as the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe stands in opposition. The St. Regis Tribal Gaming Commission issued a cease-and-desist order against the Three Feathers Casino, which said the facility was in violation of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s gaming ordinance, before criminal charges were levied.

Mr. Kader said the controversy brought on by the order affected the economic viability of the casino, scaring people and driving away business. While they will certainly continue to aid those Native Americans who have slipped through the cracks of the tribal system, they may have to look for other methods, he said.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

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