Christine Stuart photo
Left to right: Former U.S. Senate Joe Lieberman, Austin Tighe, Richard Velky (Christine Stuart photo)

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, which has unsuccessfully fought for years for federal recognition, filed a lawsuit against Connecticut Friday for $610 million in damages associated with the states taking of tribal land.

The lawsuit filed in Hartford Superior Court says Connecticut took 2,000 acres of tribal land between 1801 to 1918 and never compensated the tribe, which was recognized by the Connecticut colony in 1736.

According to the complaint, in 1801, the state exceeded its authority, taking and selling 1,129 acres — roughly 45 percent of the tribe’s total land — and put the money in a bank through which it lent money to state residents for mortgages and general notes. Then, between 1801 and 1918, the state took thousands of acres and in connection with those takings issued approximately 91 mortgages totaling over $45,000. The tribe received neither principal nor interest from those land transactions and the state-appointed overseers of the tribe never took legal action to collect debt from delinquent payers.

Austin Tighe, lead counsel with the Texas law firm of Nix, Patterson and Roach, said the state has never offered the tribe an accounting of the land for the past 200 years.

He said the $610 million estimate in damages is based on four land transactions and the value of the land at the time it was taken.

Tighe said his firm only accepts about one out of every 50 cases, but they agreed to represent the tribe in this case because of the tribe’s meticulous record keeping. He said it’s unclear if the state has the documents its been seeking regarding the transactions.

What is clear, according to Tighe, is that the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution require a state to pay fair compensation when it takes land in the manner it took Schaghticoke land.

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky said the tribe is only interested in a “fair and just financial settlement for the land that was unconstitutionally taken. That is all we seek with this lawsuit.”

He said it’s not about federal recognition and it’s not about building a casino.

Christine Stuart photo
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky (Christine Stuart photo)

Those two issues may have nothing to do with the current lawsuit, but they’re what brought Velky and former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is helping represent the tribe, together.

A former Schaghticoke foe, Lieberman said he’s trying to make amends for his previous opposition to the tribe.

In 2004 and 2005 when he was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Lieberman was opposed to the tribe receiving federal recognition. The tribe briefly received federal recognition in 2004, but lost that recognition in 2005 after state leaders, including Lieberman, pressed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reverse its decision. It was the first time federal recognition of a tribe had ever been reversed.

Lieberman said Friday that he fought federal recognition because there was a desire by the Connecticut public not to expand casino gaming. At the time, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribal Nation built some of the world’s largest casinos in southwestern Connecticut after receiving federal recognition. If the Schaghticokes received recognition they made it clear they would seek to open a casino to help repay the cost of its decades-long battle for federal recognition.

Christine Stuart photo
Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (Christine Stuart photo)

“This is about the fact that they had their land taken by the state of Connecticut and were not compensated,” Lieberman said Friday at a press conference.

Lieberman said being involved in this litigation, in which he’s representing the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, is what might be called a second chance “to do right by them.”

He said over time “the history is clear that they’ve been treated not only unfairly, but grossly unfairly and this gives me an opportunity to try and do something about that.”

Asked if his attempt to make amends extended to his fee as an attorney, Lieberman said like Tighe’s firm he’s working on a contingency fee and “we’ll try to do justice.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General George Jepsen said they are reviewing the complaint “and will respond at the appropriate time in court.”