Two months before the Cayuga Nation Police Department raid and building demolitions in Seneca Falls, the region's top federal prosecutor had urged the two groups embroiled in a years-long leadership dispute to avoid escalating their conflict.
In a Dec. 19 letter, James P. Kennedy Jr., U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, told lawyers representing the Clint Halftown-led Cayuga Nation Council and the opposition traditional government that each side could be in violation of the law "for any actions taken to assert their perceived rights."
Kennedy specifically warned that Halftown's Cayuga Nation Police Department did not have clear authority.
"Should the Cayuga Nation's Police Officers make any arrests under questionable legal authority and transport prisoners across state lines, they could be exposed to potential criminal and/ or civil liability, and there is no certainty that they would be entitled to sovereign immunity for their actions," Kennedy wrote.
Despite the letter, Halftown's council conducted an early-morning raid at Seneca Falls properties that had been controlled by the opposition group since 2014. It detained eight people, charged one with violating Cayuga Nation criminal law and demolished several buildings, including the Cayuga Lake Trading Store gas station, a day care and a schoolhouse.
The Halftown council, citing rulings in recent years by the federal Department of the Interior recognizing it as the federal representative of the Cayuga Nation, said the actions were taken to "to detain persons who have violated (tribal) law, and the Nation has retaken possession of its properties." It said the demolitions were ordered by the Halftown council "to eliminate certain public safety issues, and it does not want these buildings to become a target for any further friction in the community going forward."
The Interior Department issued a statement last weekend that said it was gathering information on the case and said the status of the land where the detentions and demolitions took place "can raise serious questions of state and federal jurisdiction. ... The Department remains committed to ensuring public safety and will work with federal, state, and local law enforcement as appropriate."
The department has not responded to multiple requests for additional information from The Citizen.
The Halftown council's actions have drawn criticism and concern from federal local officials.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has called on the federal Interior Department and Justice Department, as well as state officials, to investigate the matter.
U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, whose district includes Seneca County, issued a statement that said, in part, "We were pleased to see the Department of Interior publicly responded to our input when the department stated they were aware of the situation, encouraged peaceful resolution of the dispute and warned that legal action could be taken in order to protect the safety of people and property. ... We will remain involved to encourage a swift and peaceful resolution without further damage to property or civil liberties.”
The Seneca County Board of Supervisors has also asked for federal intervention, passing a series of resolutions during an emergency meeting Sunday.
Joe Heath, the attorney representing the traditional government group that was in control of the demolished properties, said the Halftown council's action last weekend was the type of response that the federal prosecutor was trying to prevent by sending his letter. Heath said he's been frustrated by the response of federal officials since the incident.
"They do not appear to have any real action planned," he said.
Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment. In the December letter, he told both factions that the recent Interior Department findings regarding Halftown's leadership status were limited to dealings with the department.
"Questions regarding the lawful ownership of the property, operation of the business, the status of such property and business are largely questions of New York State Law, and ... such issues remain unsettled," he wrote.
"Consequently, it must be stated that any action taken by either side to the detriment of the other may result in negative legal consequences for such party."
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials were aware of the Halftown council's plans to seize the properties, but have said that the information did not come directly from the Halftown group. Instead, it developed "intelligence" about the operation and coordinated so they could monitor the situation and ensure that public safety was not jeopardized.
The Halftown group is claiming that it coordinated with law enforcement on the operation, but Seneca Falls Police Chief Stuart Peenstra told The Citizen that isn't true.
"Absolutely not," he said Wednesday.
Peenstra said representatives of both groups have come to local law enforcement ahead of planned takeover attempts in the past, and law enforcement has not shared that information with the other side.
In the recent case, though, no specific warning came.
In all cases, Peenstra said, law enforcement agencies have been limited in what they can do because of the murky jurisdictional issues involving the Cayuga Nation's sovereignty status. As a result, the main focus has been on preventing violence.