Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) raided four Ho-Chunk, Inc. sites in Winnebago last Tuesday, Jan. 30, and seized truckloads of records related to the tribe's tobacco sales.
Ho-Chunk, the Winnebago tribe's economic development corporation, manufactures and distributes Silver Cloud, Fire Dance and One Spirit cigarettes, pipes and cigars. The products are manufactured at Rock River Manufacturing facility and distributed to approximately a dozen states and several reservations by HCI Distributing. Both companies are also Ho-Chunk subsidiaries.
The majority of the information seized Tuesday is subject to an ongoing federal court case in the D.C. Court of Appeals filed by the tribe. In May, a judge ruled that the tribe is subject to the record keeping requirements of the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1978 to address the interstate transportation, possession and sale of non-state tax paid tobacco products. The ruling was later appealed by the tribe.
The tribe has countered that the case is about how the tribal government keeps their records and the limitations they place on the ATF's authority. Additionally, the tribe claims that ATF changed their interpretation of the law without notice to 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,” said Frank White, Chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, in a written statement. “The Winnebago Tribe looks forward to settling this dispute and will continue to fight to protect its sovereign status.”
The Winnebago Tribe implements and enforces its own tax codes, including taxes from tobacco sales. According to a statement released by the tribe, every cent of the tax collected is utilized to directly improve and enrich the lives of the Winnebago community and its members.
Sam Burrish, communications manager for Ho-Chunk, noted that the tribe is fully cooperating with authorities
“Ho-Chunk, Inc. is confident that in the end, tribal sovereignty will prevail,” he added.
Additionally, Ho-Chunk's cigarette brands are not listed for sale off-reservation in Nebraska and the recent events do not affect sales on the Winnebago Reservation. Retail operations, including Pony Express, are open for regular business.