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SEX HARASSMENT, RACIAL PREFERENCE FOCUS OF SENECA GAMING LAWSUITS: Casino big Jeffrey Gill targeted by women, millions sought

ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

A lawsuit unfolding in Tonawanda City Court gives a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Seneca Niagara Casino and to the sort of treatment that non-Seneca workers say they have received at the hands of their Native American employers there.

While allegations of capricious firings, preferential treatment for Seneca employees over non-Senecas, and verbal and physical abuse began almost as soon as the casino opened in January 2003, Lori J. Sezepaniec of North Tonawanda is suing the former chairman of the Seneca Gaming Corp., Jeffrey L. Gill, for creating a hostile work environment, one that involved numerous instances of sexual harassment.

Sezepaniec, who worked as a dealer at the casino, says she filed no fewer than five internal complaints against Gill between September 2009 and January 2010, when Kevin Seneca replaced him as Seneca Gaming chairman. He remains on the board of directors, and is also a member of the audit committee for the Gaming Corp.

Sources close to the case told the Niagara Falls Reporter said several of the complaints had to do with gross sexual imposition, in which Gill groped and fondled the woman's breasts.

Shortly before his dismissal as chairman, Gill was in federal court when disbarred Lewiston attorney Timothy Toohey admitted that he had embezzled $202,000 in the Hickory Stick land deal. So far, Toohey is the only one charged in connection with the land deal. Federal officials say as much as $900,000 may have been taken from the Senecas.

Sezepaniec claims that Gill's repeated harassment resulted in her suffering lost wages, doctor bills, co-pays for medical tests and specialists, pain, suffering and severe trauma. As things stand right now, she is suing in small claims court and seeking $5,000, the maximum allowable.

But Tonawanda City Court sources told the Reporter that the case is unlikely to be heard in small claims court.

"We've had attorneys from every major law firm in Buffalo here to get a copy of the filing and Ms. Sezepaniec's contact information," one said. "A case like this could be worth quite a lot more than $5,000."

Wherever it winds up, the Sezepaniec case is merely the latest in a series of legal actions against the Seneca Gaming Corp. and its officers filed by former casino employees who also claim to have been victimized.

Gill is also targeted in a suit filed by Susan Kesel, who served as vice president of information technology for the Gaming Corp., and became a victim of the massive upheaval in management surrounding the ouster of its former chairman, Barry Snyder, in connection with the Hickory Stick scandal that erupted last year.

According to Kesel's suit, her refusal to hire unqualified Seneca applicants over highly qualified non-Senecas despite considerable pressure led to her being branded as "anti-Seneca."

"It had become commonplace in (casino) operations to discriminate against non-Native American employees in such a way as to put their jobs in jeopardy and at threat of being fired, while protecting Native Americans from any valid disciplinary procedures," the suit alleges.

Kesel was later fired after being accused of involvement in a highly publicized attempt to "misappropriate company trade secrets" that was covered extensively by the Buffalo News.

"These false and defamatory statements made by the Defendants would be propagated across the Internet and available to prospective customers for products and services offered by (Kesel)," the suit contends.

"These false and defamatory statements were made by the Defendants maliciously and with vindictive and evil intent with full knowledge of their falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth."

The suit alleges that Kesel has since been unable to find employment in the gaming industry, having been for all intents and purposes "blackballed" by the Senecas.

Kesel's attorneys are seeking more than $100 million in damages.

Colleen Cutler, former director of program management for the Senecas, filed a second, related suit. In both the Kesel and Cutler cases, the plaintiffs allege the discovery of an error that "linked" as many has 100,000 casino customer accounts. This linkage allowed for any one of the customers to use another's Player's Club points, the suit contends.

The linkage occurred before either Kesel or Cutler worked there, the complaints allege, and their discovery of the potentially disastrous problem coincided with their own problems with casino management.

Cutler is also seeking in excess of $100 million, as she too contends that she has effectively been blackballed from future casino employment anywhere in the country.

The stalled development of the former Splash Park property on Rainbow Boulevard, the FBI investigation into $900,000 that went missing in the development of the Hickory Stick Golf Course, and allegations of sexual harassment, institutional racism and a slush fund created by merging Player's Club accounts should keep both the feds and prominent area attorneys busy for quite some time.

The turmoil within the Seneca Gaming Corp. -- which was found to be an illegal entity in Seneca court -- has resulted in four different chairmen put in place over a period of just one year. And current Chairman Kevin Seneca is already under fire from opposing factions within the corporation.

Niagara Falls City Assessor Dominic Penale is said to be looking into issues regarding the ownership of land surrounding the casino itself, in an effort to determine whether the bulk of it, owned by the Gaming Corp., is in fact sovereign Seneca land under the terms of the state compact that created Native American gaming here. In yet another lawsuit, prominent local attorney John Bartolomei contends that it is not, citing repeated references in the compact itself that say only land owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians can claim sovereignty, and thus be exempt from city, county and school district property taxes here.

You don't read about this stuff in the Niagara Gazette, since Robert Trent Jones, the golf course architect who designed the Hickory Stick course in Lewiston, has a partnership agreement with the Alabama corporation that also owns the paper.

And you won't hear state Rep. Francine Del Monte -- who allegedly represents the city in Albany -- bringing it up, since her relationship with the Senecas is largely governed by the fact that her brother, John Del Monte, is a highly paid Seneca Gaming Corp. attorney.

In the end, the politics of the Senecas -- which allows for the purchasing of votes with cash -- has become the politics of Niagara Falls.

As for the non-Seneca residents of the city, they've become what every casino operation so desperately needs.

The suckers.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 20, 2010