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Oct 10, 2012 9:53 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Wracked With Internal Turmoil, Shinnecocks May Be Looking To Revive Use of Westwoods

Oct 10, 2012 11:28 AM

Two members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal Trustees and two members of the Gaming Authority who were suspended for more than a month this summer, following what they have called a “political coup,” were in the midst of negotiations that could have led the tribe toward renewing efforts to open a small gaming facility on tribe-owned land in Hampton Bays.

The men also had been working on contracts with a multinational real estate investment firm with the possibility of acquiring new lands in the tri-state region on which the tribe might pursue gaming ventures beyond its agreements with Detroit-based casino developer Michael Malik’s company, Gateway Casino Resorts, to help it build its first large Vegas-style casino somewhere in the New York City metro region.

In a letter circulated last month to all the members of the tribe, the two Tribal Trustees, Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright, said the tribe should be looking at immediately developing a small Class II gaming facility—which could feature bingo or poker, as well as gambling devices such as pull tabs, punchboard, tip jars, and instant bingo—because it could take many years for the tribe to achieve its ultimate goal of a full-fledged Class III casino.

“The Tribe would make millions now, providing jobs, income and training for the Nation instead of just relying on the monthly stipends from the developer,” the letter signed by Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright reads. “We are not getting Class III gaming anytime soon, so the smart move for the Nation would have been to start a Class II facility now, which has been recommended by all of the financial experts, as well as former Governor David Paterson in his last visit to the Nation.”

Under the rules of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a state compact is required before a tribe can open a Class III facility, which features traditional casino table games and slot machines. But a federally recognized tribe may open a Class II facility featuring bingo as well as poker, which allows players to play each other and not the house, on tribal lands as of right, without state or local approval. But the facility would have to be on recognized sovereign and aboriginal tribal lands, not just land owned by the tribe. Other documents included in a packet with the letter and circulated by the men to other tribe members in defense of their actions, show that the 79-acre Westwoods property in Hampton Bays would be the target parcel for such a facility.

The tribe’s use of Westwoods as a potential site for a gaming facility was the subject of a four-year legal battle between the tribe and Southampton Town. It culminated in a ruling by a federal judge that the property was not aboriginal tribal lands, was not exempt from local zoning restrictions and could not be used for a gaming facility.

But documents from one of the tribe’s legal advisors, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, a California law firm that specializes in Native American gaming issues, outlines a number of possible legal appeals to the Westwoods ruling. The legal advice also points to caveats in the tribe’s various contracts with Gateway that would appear to allow them to pursue a Class II facility on Westwoods or the 800-acre tribal reservation at Shinnecock Neck on the edge of Southampton Village.

Even before the 2007 federal court decision that seemed to take Westwoods off the gaming table, tribal leaders had said that the property was not suitable for the type of large-scale casino development they had set their sights on since partnering with Gateway. But in recent years, there has been a clear and apparently growing divide among tribe members about the Shinnecocks’ partnership with Mr. Malik and Gateway, and the direction the casino effort is taking.

Two camps, one supportive of Mr. Malik’s leadership of the casino effort, the other distrusting and seeing a diverging path of Mr. Malik’s interests and the tribe’s, have developed. Mr. Wright and Mr. Gumbs, obviously members of the latter, none-too-subtly indicated that their recent “suspension”—which they have said was invalid and unofficial under tribal bylaws—was orchestrated by Mr. Malik to sow unrest and to undermine their own efforts to investigate options beyond the Gateway agreements that may be beneficial to the tribe. In the 60-page packet, including copies of memos from attorneys, excerpts of contracts and minutes from tribal meetings, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright defend the work they had been doing in recent months as preliminary, non-binding and soundly in the best interests of the tribe.

They said that information provided by a Gateway employee to some members of the tribe—including emails they claim were stolen from a private account—were distorted and misrepresented by those tribe members to make it appear that the men were forging ahead with alternate casino plans without the approval of the tribe. An excerpt in the packet from the minutes of a July 31 meeting quotes tribe member Paula Collins as saying that the tribal code of ethics allows the tribe to put an elected official out of office for “misconduct.”

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