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Lawmakers: Revoke NYS status of LI's Unkechaug tribe

While the Shinnecock Nation takes the final step to recognition, another Long Island tribe is under siege.

The Unkechaug tribe of Mastic, whose members have fought an onslaught of lawsuits over their outsized cigarette sales, last week suffered another affront: a recommendation by a State Senate committee that the tribe's state recognition be revoked. The one-sentence recommendation appears at the end of the Senate report, which follows two public hearings on untaxed cigarette sales at state reservations.

The committee, chaired by State Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), inadvertently dealt the tribe another slight by referring to it in its 17-page report as the Poospatucks, a name that refers to the tribal reservation in Mastic. The tribe's ancestral name, Unkechaug, does not even appear in the report.

Unkechaug chief Harry Wallace, a lawyer, said the report continues a pattern of racism and discrimination against the tribe, the state's smallest, and the closest to New York City, whose mayor, Michael Bloomberg, "has an agenda to destroy us." Wallace said any attempt to revoke the tribe's state recognition "will be an illegal act," likely to create "more animosity." The Unkechaug's have been documented as a tribe for centuries. Thomas Jefferson visited and studied their language, which Wallace is attempting to revive.

The Senate report states that Altria, owner of Marlboro brand cigarettes, has suffered because Poospatuck smoke shops allegedly have been selling counterfeit Marlboros.

"The sale of counterfeit cigarettes defrauds consumers who seek to purchase actual Marlboro cigarettes, cheats the tobacco manufacturers out of revenue and deprives the state of collecting the cigarette tax thus creating a fraudulent trifecta," the report says.

Altria, which has filed suit against several Poospatuck smoke shops, in January funneled $50,000 to the Democratic Senate Committee's Housekeeping account, the company's second largest contribution to New York State political causes, state records show. Through a spokesman, Johnson said the contribution did not influence his report. "Senator Johnson doesn't fundraise for [the committee], he just follows the facts," spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.

The report blamed Poospatuck smoke shops for many of the ills it cites, such as lost tax revenue, harm to Marlboro's brand, and a state budget deficit. But while it attempts to quantify the tax losses tied the Poospatuck smoke shops ($137 million between 2008 and 2009, from dealings with two wholesalers), the report does not provide similar figures for other, larger New York tribes such as the Senecas, which have their own cigarette brand. "What we're doing is not even close to what the other tribes are doing," Wallace said.Explained Azzopardi said other tribe's practices were discussed "in great length" in public hearings, and added, "It is clear that the practices of the Unkechaug tribe were different in the view of law enforcement."The report cites a bill introduced by Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin calling for "rescinding state recognition of the Poospatuck Indians as an official tribe."

Benjamin on Tuesday said he introduced the bill because the tribe "only seems to exist as a tobacco-selling entity." He acknowledged the bill hasn't been taken up in the assembly, and said he wasn't certain he will pursue it. "Probably not," he said. "If we could just work out some agreement for them to collect taxes to non-tribal members."

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