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Winnebago tribal chairman calls ATF raid attack on tribe's sovereignty

Winnebago tribal chairman calls ATF raid attack on tribe's sovereignty

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WINNEBAGO, Neb. | Tuesday's raid by federal agents at four sites owned by Ho-Chunk Inc. is being considered as an assault on the Winnebago Tribe's sovereignty, the tribal chairman said late Wednesday.

Frank White said in an email statement that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' seizure of records related to the tribe's tobacco operations was spurred by state of Nebraska regulators in an attempt to gain an upper hand in tobacco tax compact negotiations with the tribe.

"We believe the ATF was influenced by the state of Nebraska to investigate Ho-Chunk Inc. and its subsidiary, Rock River Manufacturing, to help the state gain advantage in an ongoing tax dispute. This is unfortunate because the federal agents' actions place many of our tribal members' jobs at risk," White said.

Nebraska state officials have not responded to the chairman's allegation. A spokesman for the office of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation. A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday. 

More than 50 federal agents visited Ho-Chunk Inc.'s corporate office, HCI Distribution, Rock River Manufacturing and Ho-Chunk's Village Pointe offices in Winnebago Tuesday. A spokesman for Ho-Chunk, the economic development corporation for the Winnebago Tribe, said Tuesday that it was the latest event in a "20-year state-tribal tax dispute."

Federal officials on Tuesday declined comment on the investigation.

HCI Distribution, a Ho-Chunk subsidiary established in 1997, is currently the largest tribal cigarette and tobacco distributor in the U.S., according to its website.

Since 2014, Ho-Chunk has operated Rock River Manufacturing, a 15,000-square-foot factory that makes its own Fire Dance, One Spirit and Silver Cloud brands of cigarettes and sells them in 26 states and on most reservations nationwide.

White said Wednesday that as a sovereign nation, the Winnebago Tribe implements and enforces its own tax codes, including taxes from tobacco sales. Those taxes support a number of programs and agencies that benefit tribal members and the community, he said.

White said the tribe has attempted to negotiate a tobacco tax compact with the state of Nebraska, but the state canceled those talks last year.

"The Winnebago Tribe looks forward to settling this dispute and will continue to fight to protect its sovereign status," White said.

Ho-Chunk has been in conflict with government entities over whether certain record-keeping provisions of the Contraband Cigarettes Trafficking Act apply to tribal entities, and a May ruling that certain records fall under the ATF's jurisdiction is under appeal.

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