Oneida Nation funds lawsuit over attorney fees

By Michael Virtanen
Albany, New York (AP) April 2011

The Oneida Indian Nation has backed a lawsuit against Madison County Attorney S. John Campanie and New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, claiming the attorney improperly received more than $800,000 over 13 years from a law firm he helped pick to fight county legal battles with the Oneidas.

The suit in state Supreme Court in Albany said DiNapoli was contacted last October about the allegedly improper payments but failed to do anything about them. It was filed Monday on behalf of two county residents who work for the Oneidas, who own and operate the Turning Stone casino and resort in central New York.

It seeks restitution to taxpayers of money that it says improperly went from the state to the Nixon Peabody law firm to Campanie.

The county attorney is prohibited from getting extra money for doing county work to avoid having conflicts of interest, and the bills were for legal work beyond authorized land claim litigation, according to the lawsuit.

“The payments are in clear violation of state law,” said lawyer George Carpinello, who was paid by the Oneidas to file the lawsuit.

“Of the more than $12 million the state has paid to Nixon Peabody and Mr. Campanie, it appears that most of it has been work for which state law does not authorize payment, such as tax and trust litigation,” Carpinello wrote to DiNapoli last fall.

The 19 Madison County supervisors issued a joint statement Tuesday calling the lawsuit “a desperate attempt” by the Oneidas to deny effective legal counsel to the county and state against the Indians’ claims to more than 250,000 acres. Campanie’s pay arrangements have been disclosed since 1998 in annual filings with the county Ethics Board, they said.

The legislators said their lawyers’ shared victories included the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 rejecting Oneida claims of sovereignty on aboriginal land and a later ruling by a midlevel court against land title and damages claims that will likely be appealed.

The Oneidas have claimed the land was illegally purchased by the state in the 18th and 19th centuries and that the state underpaid them by about $500,000. With compound interest, that would be $500 million or more today.

“Accordingly, the defense effort continues,” the county legislators wrote, and noted the tribe was pressing “an unprecedented land in trust application” and refusing the pay property taxes or to collect and remit sales taxes.

Campanie said their collective legal work helped save the state $250 million in the Cayuga land claim case and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Oneida case.

Nixon Peabody declined to comment.

DiNapoli spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the comptroller has not yet been served with the court papers.

“We are aware of the issues that have been raised. We’ve been looking at this closely for several months,” Tompkins said. “It’s fairly complicated situation.”