Deep divisions seen in Unkechaug tribe
Current and former leaders of the Unkechaug Indian Nation are waging an explosive war of words in a barrage of recent court filings that expose deep divisions at the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic.
Former chief Harry Wallace and 11 other tribal members, in a state Supreme Court filing in Riverhead this summer, accuse three members of the newly elected tribal council and a council adviser of promoting the reservation as a "haven for non-Unkechaug criminal actors" and activities, including misappropriation of tribal funds, illegal cigarette sales and manufacturing, and illegal drug sales.
But a lawyer who advises the six-member tribal council and is one of the named defendants in the case, in a motion seeking to dismiss the suit on his behalf, alleges that it was two former leaders -- including Wallace and a former tribal attorney, James Simermeyer -- who may have misappropriated funds. He said they are the subjects of an internal tribal investigation.
"In short, the plaintiffs and their attorney are simply the ousted and disgruntled former representatives of the Unkechaug Indian Nation and their cronies and they are using the court to lash out at the new tribal council," wrote Peter Kaiteris, a Patchogue attorney who is representing himself. Kaiteris denied charges in the suit accusing him of "promoting illegal activities" at Poospatuck.
In an interview, he called the former leaders' claims "unfounded" and "nonsensical," and said that rather than promote illegal activity, new leaders have sought to expose and eradicate improprieties they encountered on taking office.
Income from cigarette sales
The Poospatuck reservation in Mastic sits on a 55-acre waterfront tract, where 280 of the tribe's roughly 400 members live. The tribe's primary income is from cigarette sales. A 2008 Stony Brook University study with the tribe found 42 percent of tribal families lived on incomes of less than $20,000 a year.
Kaiteris said a motion to dismiss also has been filed on behalf of the other defendants in the case.
Glenn Warmuth, an attorney representing the tribal council members in the Wallace case, declined to comment. Simermeyer, an attorney for Wallace who filed the lawsuit, did not return calls seeking comment. Wallace also didn't return calls and was not available at his Poospatuck Trading Post shop on a recent visit.
In addition to Kaiteris, the suit names tribal council members Michelle Jackson, Mitchell Miller and Latasha Austin. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
One longtime observer of Long Island Indian tribes said that while disputes and lawsuits among tribal members are part of their history, millions in revenue from cigarette sales at Poospatuck have raised the stakes.
"These are animosities that are pretty deeply entrenched," said ethno-historian John Strong, professor emeritus of history and American studies at Long Island University, who recently completed a book on the tribe, "The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island." "This is a big operation," he said of the cigarette business.
Would clear path to casino
If successful, it would allow the tribe to open a casino and provide federal health, tribal government and education aid. Peebles declined to discuss the tribe's ambitions for gaming or say when the application would be submitted. The approval process takes years -- 32 years in the Shinnecock case.
Among the allegations in the Wallace suit is that a new community center, established by Wallace for cultural and health-care purposes, instead is being used to manufacture cigarettes.
The suit seeks an injunction barring leaders from improperly transferring property or spending tribal funds, requiring disclosure of financial records since April 1 (when new council members took office), and ending alleged efforts to manufacture cigarettes in the community center.
Wallace had been tribal chief for 17 years before losing an election to Matthew Carroll in April. Carroll is not a named defendant in the suit.