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It started with a crooked land deal, when nearly $900,000 in tribal funds disappeared.

After that, a disbarred lawyer took a felony plea deal in federal court.

Then his alleged accomplice, a former Seneca Nation of Indians leader, was indicted and accused of engineering the theft. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have never been accounted for publicly.

Those are the main elements of the Hickory Stick Golf Course land fraud case, one that now roils next week’s Seneca Nation elections because the lawyer and alleged accomplice were closely associated with presidential candidate Barry E. Snyder Sr., who was Seneca president and head of Seneca Gaming Corp. when the land deal occurred.

Thirty-three months ago, disbarred attorney Timothy J. Toohey stood up in federal court and admitted that he stole $202,000 from the Lewiston land deal involving Seneca Gaming.

A judge scheduled Toohey’s sentencing for April 14, 2010. But the sentencing has been delayed seven times – each time at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The latest postponement, granted earlier this month, prompted Snyder’s opponent for the Seneca Nation presidency to complain that the delays are preventing the Seneca people from getting full information about Toohey’s embezzlement and how it happened.

Richard E. Nephew alleges that Snyder must somehow have been involved in a land fraud conspiracy that cost the Senecas nearly $900,000.

“It is well past time for Barry Snyder, who was president of the Seneca Nation and chair of the Seneca Gaming Corp. at the time, to finally come forward and provide a full and proper accounting of his involvement in the conspiracy,” said Nephew, who presently is chairman of the Senecas’ Tribal Council.

Snyder vehemently denies any involvement but says he feels badly that the theft “happened on my watch.”

He noted that he was interviewed by the FBI and that he also testified before a federal grand jury about the land fraud case. If federal agents and prosecutors found evidence that he was involved in the scheme, they would have indicted him, he said.

But Toohey was a longtime friend and former personal attorney for Snyder, Nephew pointed out. Also, Bergal L. Mitchell III, who was indicted in the case last year, was a longtime Snyder aide, Nephew noted.

The Buffalo News has obtained a copy of an FBI report on its September 2008 interview with Snyder. According to the FBI document, Snyder insisted that he had “no knowledge” that the land price was inflated, or that money from the purchase was shared with Toohey, Mitchell or members of Mitchell’s family.

Snyder told FBI agents that Mitchell was his good friend, golf partner and political supporter, but he also said that “there is no legitimate reason” why Mitchell would have received any money from the golf course deal.

The News also obtained a copy of a letter that federal prosecutors sent to Snyder’s attorney, Andrew C. LoTempio, around the time of the FBI interview.

“[At] this time, your client is not a target nor a subject of this criminal investigation,” the letter states.

More than four years later, Snyder has never been charged in the case.

Under his plea agreement, Toohey agreed to testify against Mitchell if Mitchell’s case goes to trial. So far, no trial date has been set.

When Mitchell allegedly stole $338,000 of the land deal proceeds in 2006, he was vice chairman of Seneca Gaming, which runs the Seneca casinos. His immediate boss, mentor and close friend was Snyder, who was then chairman of the gaming corporation and president of the Seneca Nation.

The Senecas paid a heavily inflated price of $2.1 million for the Lewiston property where the Hickory Stick golf course was built. According to court papers, more than $880,000 – including the money given to Toohey and Mitchell – was skimmed from the deal. About $350,000 of the skimmed money has never been publicly accounted for.

A shakedown, allegedly engineered by Toohey and Mitchell, is laid out in federal court papers filed when Mitchell was indicted last year.

“[I] do not wish to sound heavy-handed,” FBI agents quoted Toohey as saying in an August 2004 email to a lawyer involved in the deal. “I have associates. … Their interests, in all candor, are not exclusively to get a golf property for the casino spa hotel. They are driven by more capitalistic tendencies.”

Snyder told The News that if Toohey and Mitchell shook down anyone for money, he had no knowledge of or involvement with the crimes.

And Snyder’s backers noted that the current Seneca president, Robert Odawi Porter, an attorney educated at Harvard Law School, was the Seneca Nation’s attorney general at the time of the land deal.

“Rob Porter was part of the legal team that was supposed to research this land deal, and examine all the legalities and check what we were paying against the surrounding land values,” said Maurice A. “Moe” John, a former Seneca president and Snyder supporter.

That is untrue, Porter said.

“I was representing the Seneca Nation. The land was being purchased by the gaming corporation, which is a separate entity,” Porter said. “The gaming corporation’s attorneys, not my group of attorneys, were responsible for doing the due diligence and vetting the contract.”

Porter allies noted that ethical questions were raised about John’s conduct in August 2009, when the Council suspended John from his position as treasurer of the gaming corporation. The Council said John and an aide were accused of misappropriating $120,000 in tribal funds. John denied any wrongdoing in the case and said the charges were politically motivated. He has never been criminally charged in the case.

Eight members of the Council who are loyal to Snyder sent The News a letter supporting Snyder’s actions and criticizing Porter with regard to the Lewiston land deal.

“[To] accuse Barry Snyder Sr. of having any wrongdoing in the matter is simply false,” Council Members Tracie Brown, Donald John, Susan Abrams, Llona Leroy, Tina Abrams, Arlene Bova, Todd Gates and Michael John wrote. “If anything, Rob Porter should be investigated for not conducting a thorough due diligence.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Buffalo office of the FBI declined to discuss the Toohey case, except to confirm that it has been delayed by pretrial litigation.

Toohey’s attorney, Joel L. Daniels, said that it is not unusual for federal judges to wait until a cooperating witness, such as Toohey, has testified at trial before sentencing him for his crime.

“The government wants to see if Tim Toohey adheres to his plea agreement and testifies truthfully at trial. The government requested the delays, and the judge approved them,” Daniels said. “It’s normal procedure. No funny business. All routine.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com