Attorney General: N.Y. could sue federal government over Indian land issue

Elizabeth Cooper

New York state may pursue a lawsuit against the federal government if the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs decides to take the land into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said Thursday. 

“We are reviewing the matter now,” Cuomo told the Observer-Dispatch editorial board. “We could see a lawsuit against the federal government, depending on what the final course of action is.” 

In 2005, the Oneida Indian Nation had applied to place 17,370 acres of its nonreservation land into federal Indian trust. The U.S. Bureau of Indian affairs recommended in February that 13,089 be placed in trust, and now the U.S. Department of the Interior must make a final decision. 

That decision could come at any time, but Cuomo staffers said it might be as soon as the end of the month. 

“At that point, we will have 30 days to commence some sort of legal action, and it’s our expectation that we would,” said Executive Deputy Attorney General Leslie Leach, who also was at the meeting. 

The final decision over whether to sue would be largely driven by the office of Gov. David Paterson, and members of the state Legislature also would also be consulted, the attorney general’s staffers said. 

Because the final ruling hasn’t come yet, all discussions about possible actions are hypothetical, they said. 

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the same. 

“Speculating on legal action is not something we are going to do,” spokesman Morgan Hook said. “We are going to wait and see what the final decision is before we choose our next course of action.” 

The Oneida Nation said it was too early to talk about the impact of the decision that hadn’t been made yet. 

“The Nation did not hear the attorney general's remarks and doesn't respond to hypothetical questions, but does await a decision by Department of the Interior so the area can move forward,” Nation spokesman Mark Emery said Thursday night. 

Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, also said it was too early to talk about lawsuits. 

“I think this is a hypothetical issue,” she said, adding that she favored negotiating with the Nation. 

State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said he still was hoping the Interior Department would not adopt the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ recommendation. 

“I’m hoping the Department of the Interior will look at this more realistically and pragmatically than the Bureau of Indian Affairs did,” he said. 

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, who favors a negotiated settlement with the Oneidas, said he was hoping to meet with the Oneidas next week, but that if legal action was necessary, the county was prepared. 

“I have said since the beginning we have to protect our rights,” he said. 

U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, said he too hoped for a negotiated settlement, but would support a lawsuit if it became necessary. 

“It has always been, and will continue to be, my first and foremost hope that a negotiated settlement will be reached,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “If, however, the Oneidas refuse to return to the bargaining table, I am pleased to know that the Attorney General will support our efforts against the Department of the Interior’s blatant disregard for our community.” 

The Oneida County Board of Legislators Democratic Minority Leader Mike Hennessy, D-Sherrill, whose district includes areas that would go into trust, applauded the idea of a state lawsuit. 

“It sounds good,” he said. “The question is how seriously the state of New York will take this and how prepared we will be to prosecute the case and improve our chances of winning.”