Politician's unsubstantiated Indian tobacco-terrorist link targets Oneida

Gale Courey Toensing
8/12/08

WESTMORELAND, N.Y. - A state politician with a long history of opposing Indian sovereignty has attempted to link American Indian nations; tobacco sales to terrorism, targeting the Oneida Indian Nation of New York along the way.

Republican Assemblyman David Townsend sent a flier during the last week of July to an unknown number of households in Oneida and Oswego counties, claiming that ''cigarette smuggling rackets originating on New York's Indian reservations are transferring huge sums of money to Middle East terror groups.''

Townsend cites a report called ''Tobacco and Terror: How Cigarette Smuggling is Funding our Enemies Abroad'' that purports to connect the sale of untaxed tobacco products on Indian reservations to Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaida, but provides little substantive evidence to support the claim.

''America's Indian Nations ... gambling with our security?'' the flier asks, juxtaposing that headline over a photograph of the OIN's Turning Stone Resort and Casino, clearly implying that the nation is involved in illegal activities.

Townsend has long opposed Oneida's sovereign status. He has challenged the Interior Department's decision earlier this year to take land into trust for the tribe. He's called for the creation of a ''state reservation'' so the state could exploit the nation's gaming proceeds. And he's urged the state to join a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Supreme Court against Interior's land-into-trust decision for Rhode Island's Narragansett Indians.

But Townsend's main objective in trying to link Indian tobacco sales with international terrorism is not to end terrorism or raise concerns about the health risks of smoking. His message, according to the flier and an interview with a local television channel, is that ''Indians should pay their fair share in taxes.''

In the interview (searchable at www.9wsyr.com), Townsend was asked why he put the photograph of Turning Stone on his flier.

''Because it's a casino, because it's gambling,'' Townsend replied.

'But you don't have proof that they [the OIN] specifically smuggled anything?'' the reporter asked.

''No, not unless, not unless that was reported here in the federal report,'' Townsend said, waving the report, which does not mention the OIN anywhere.

Mark Emery, OIN's director of media relations, was quick to respond to what he called Townsend's ''junk flier'' in a letter to the editor of a local paper.

''Assemblyman Townsend's latest flier arrived. As a taxpayer and longtime resident of his district, I can say he is wasting our tax dollars again,'' Emery wrote, referring to the fact that Townsend paid for the flier with taxpayers' money from a fund given to all elected officials to send out mailings.

''This time, though, the content of his junk flier was more far-flung than usual. Mentioning 'facts' about illegal cigarette sales and terrorists when he knows they have nothing to do with the Oneidas' operation is crummy.

''Lambasting the Oneidas for not collecting taxes at their stations from the hardworking people who buy gas there hoping to save money where they can is heartless. This guy should be working with the Oneidas and others to create more jobs here in central New York and stop wasting our time and money with his cheap rhetoric.''

Townsend did not return a call seeking comment, but in the television interview he insisted that his flier was not misleading the public.

''We're talking about the collection of taxes on cigarettes and we're talking about the smuggling of cigarettes through Native American businesses, which the Turning Stone is, used to fund terrorism around the world, based on a report of the United States Congress,'' Townsend said.

Not exactly. The report was not issued or endorsed by Congress. It was prepared by the Republican staff of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security as the result of an ''investigation'' launched by Republican Rep. Peter T. King of Long Island, the ranking minority member of the committee. The report is not available on the committee's main Web site, but can be accessed at the minority committee members' Web site at http://chs-republicans.

house.gov.

The report provides legitimate statistics from the World Health Organization on the global illicit tobacco trade - an estimated 10.7 percent, or approximately 600 billion cigarettes of the more than 5.7 trillion cigarettes sold globally each year.

But, in addition to targeting American Indians, it also racially profiles Arabs and Muslims with speculative allegations and insinuations about their acting through ''tight-knit, nationality-based networks, primarily families through blood or marriage, of Lebanese, Yemeni, Jordanian and Palestinian descent.''

The report cites unnamed ''sources'' in unspecified federal and N.Y. state law enforcement agencies who ''told the committee that in New York state the smuggling networks rely primarily on access to the Native American Indian reservations for tax-free cigarettes - for obvious financial reasons.''

It also cites a ''convicted tobacco smuggler turned confidential source'' who makes no mention of Indian tobacco sales but claims that ''the big fish make hundreds of thousands a week, most of which goes to the Middle East in cash or trade transactions.''

The report cites one documented case involving two Native women from the Seneca Nation who were sentenced in 2003 for their role in a cigarette smuggling operation, and another case involving a Costa Rican co-owner of a tax-free smokeshop on Indian land who was charged with ordering the ''firebombing of a woman's car'' in an attempt to intimidate competing smokeshops. The man has ''no direct ties to terror,'' the report says, and yet he is presented as evidence in the report linking Indian tobacco sales to terrorism.

King also is keen on collecting taxes from Indian nations, and in an April 30 article in the New York Sun, he made broad unsubstantiated allegations against ''vendors and smugglers'' as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, political parties with military wings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, respectively, with democratically elected members in those countries' governments. Both organizations have fought against Israel's occupation of their homelands and are listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S.

King recommended that New York state enforce its statewide cigarette tax on American Indian reservations that are presently exempt from the levies as a tactic to disrupt the alleged smuggling operations.

''There's no magic answer that solves it across the board, but the more difficult you make it for smugglers the better,'' he said. ''It has to be a multipronged attack, but the largest target would be the Indian reservations.''

The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.

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