In Andrew Cuomo’s first two years in office, he enjoyed $17 million in spending — mostly on TV spots promoting the governor’s centrist upstate agenda – from an entity known as the Committee to Save New York (CSNY). During that period, the Governor enjoyed astronomical favorability numbers, approaching 70%.
That spending vehicle was funded by wealthy gaming interests, including the influential Jacobs family of Buffalo, owners of Delaware North Companies (DNC). Delaware North has gaming interests in eight states and has been long invested in horseracing venues across New York and Ohio. For decades, the Jacobs family has contributed heavily to Democrat Party politicians, and has been particularly supportive of the current governor.
Two weeks before Cuomo publicly announced his support of legalizing gambling in the state, DNC and others donated $2 million to CSNY for pro-Cuomo TV spots, as has been reported by downstate news outlets.
That situation invited scrutiny that could have sent people to prison, but the situation — despite some weak press reports from downstate media like the NY Daily News, the NY Post, and the NY Times – CSNY ceased its spending and was dissolved in June 2012, ahead of midterm legislative elections.
Such a quid-pro-quo could send Cuomo and, perhaps, senior members of the Jacobs family to federal prison on public corruption charges, by itself. But there is an additional angle of political complexity that could cause Cuomo and Jacobs equal legal jeopardy with much greater reputational risk.
Conspiracy to Defraud an Indian Tribe
Conspiring to defraud and Indian tribe: Jack Abramoff went to prison on that charge. So did an aide to Tom DeLay. They conspired to defraud Indian Tribes of honest services. In Western New York, DNC successfully conspired to defraud the Seneca Nation of an asset—regional exclusivity rights—that the Nation purchased in a 2002 gaming compact.
DNC’s most senior executives conspired with the Cuomo Administration, state legislators, Albany lobbyists, and media operatives to defraud the Seneca Nation of this asset. In that aim, they’ve opened competing gaming venues in blatant violation of the 2002 compact; they’ve contributed money to influence Albany politicians; they’ve spent big on media propaganda; and they’ve effectively stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from a vulnerable and still impoverished people.
They are the modern day manifestation of Indian land thieves – people who get rich on the racist and untrue premise that Indians are too stupid to realize they’re being cheated. That’s what’s characterized much of Native political history, to the extent that the Supreme Court has enshrined the “federal trust responsibility” into the cannons of federal Indian law, explicitly to protect Indians from state governments, mainstream politicians, and local business interests.
That’s what will make this a matter of high politics, and why it’s interesting enough to pay attention to.
Will the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs investigate?
In 2006, when allegations against the powerful and connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff emerged, Chairman John McCain used the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to launch investigations and hold hearings that put several conspirators in federal prison for their scheme involving excessive lobbying fees.
Why would John McCain bother with this? Senator McCain wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 and has long championed Indian issues, so he understands why states can’t tax tribes and why, if states want to profit from Indian gaming, they must do so by selling the tribe a legitimate asset. He would be offended by this elaborate, contorted, and deliberate scheme to defraud the Seneca Nation.
But the more central motivation would be politics. This is an opportunity for the Republican Party to play hard ball on the national stage. It would elevate a “corrupt-Democrat-machine-style” scandal to the national discourse—implicating the most popular Democrat Governor in the United States, and perhaps that party’s most formidable general election contender. The free media would be priceless, and could take a potential frontrunner out of the political equasion for 2016.
And who knows how many other elected officials would be implicated once the investigation gets rolling. It could really create the space for the New York GOP to make a move—all the while protecting vulnerable minorities from Democrats and their corporate contributors.
An axe to grind with Cuomo and Delaware North
The Seneca Nation has an obvious axe to grind with Delaware North: they’ve opened the Hamburg Casino and the Finger Lakes Casino, well within the Seneca’s exclusivity jurisdiction — and they continue to operate those venues to this day. The Nation also has an axe to grind with Cuomo: he was bought off by modern day Indian land thieves, and aggressively did their dirty work, helping to thieve from a horribly disadvantaged people.
Despite the deals that President Barry Snyder has cut with the current governor and other fleeting Seneca politicians, the grievances of an entire people persist, and unfold in a deeply racialized narrative that articulates an even longer arch of injustices.
One Seneca businessman who is heavily invested in the tobacco industry and enjoys considerable influence over the Tribal Council, said that he and other tobacco merchants and manufactures are livid, despite the new gaming compact secured by Snyder.
“After they [Democrat politicians] passed the federal PACT Act targeting our tobacco trade — and have sent people to prison for simply engaging in commerce on our own land — do you think we would pass up the opportunity to send corrupt white politicians to prison? No way,” he says. “We have the money, the political apparatus, and sophistication to end Cuomo’s political career. He is going to be sorry that he stole $400 million from us.”