Volume 79, Number 28 | December 16 - 22 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Tribe names Mike in cig suit

By Mary Reinholz

New York’s tobacco wars flared up last week as a tiny Long Island Indian nation beset with several lawsuits over untaxed cigarette sales filed an amended civil rights complaint in Brooklyn Federal Court. The complaints claims Mayor Mike Bloomberg and city lawyers conspired with top Suffolk County officials in setting up a police barricade on Dec. 6, 2008, at the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic to harass and intimidate tribal members.

The complaint alleges that Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, Police Commissioner Richard Dormer and District Attorney Thomas Spota shared a purported “animus” with the city officials toward the state-recognized Unkechaug tribe. It claims the police blockade of the 56-acre reservation came in the wake of a “city decision against tribal businesses.” 

The latter charge refers to some 14 Unkechaug smoke shop owners who were slapped with a federal lawsuit by New York City in September 2008, and were sued several months later by Suffolk County over discount tobacco sales to non-Indians, some of them allegedly bootleggers.

The tribe’s original complaint, filed late last year in the Eastern District, came after Suffolk police sent cruisers to three entrances of the reservation to check on motorists coming and going, as they did in 2005 to see if people were buying large amounts of untaxed cigarettes from tribal tobacco vendors. This August, the city obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting several Poospatuck retailers from selling untaxed cigarettes, and now claims two businesses and three individuals on the reservation are in contempt of that order by a federal judge.

Harry Wallace, the Unkechaug chief, said in a prepared statement that the New York City officials were added to the tribe’s complaint because “the actions of these government officials is part of a larger effort to single out the Unkechaug Nation in an effort to destroy the smallest tribe in the state.” 

“All the Indian nations in New York State engage in selling unstamped cigarettes,” Wallace — who is also a lawyer and smoke shop owner — said in a telephone interview. “Why have we been so honored with all this attention?”

Eric Proshansky, one of the lead lawyers for the city named in the Unkechaugs’ complaint, dismissed the tribe’s amended lawsuit as “baseless” and a “retaliatory measure because of the city’s suits against certain tribal stores.”

“There are no facts in this complaint,” added Proshansky, who said his office would seek sanctions against the tribe’s Manhattan attorney, James Simermeyer, “because attorneys are not allowed to file complaints that are not supported by the facts.”

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