Robert Odawi Porter’s critics accuse the outgoing Seneca president of being a smooth-talking, power-hungry leader who put family members in high-paying jobs and made millions of dollars in salaries and legal fees while working for the Seneca Nation over the past decade.
His chief rival, Barry E. Snyder Sr., has critics, too.
They want to know what Snyder was doing as Seneca Gaming Corp. chairman while his former attorney, Timothy Toohey, and one of his closest aides and confidants, Bergal Mitchell III, allegedly embezzled $540,000 from a Lewiston golf course project.
Accusations about Porter, Snyder and people close to them are flying around the Seneca territories, as an intense battle is waged for political control of the state’s most high-profile Indian tribe.
The election two years ago attracted a little more than 2,000 Seneca voters, so why should people outside the Seneca Nation care?
Because the Senecas are an important part of the regional economy. With casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca, the Senecas say they spend more than $630 million a year on salaries, goods and services in Western New York. The Senecas employ roughly 5,000 people – 3,700 in casino jobs and 1,300 in tribal jobs – making them one of the region’s 10 biggest employers.
While other local employers have cut jobs, the Senecas say about 500 more jobs are on the way, at the bigger casino they are building in downtown Buffalo.
This is all complicated by the practice of vote-buying, a long tradition in the tribe. The Senecas do not prohibit candidates from giving people cash for their votes. An aide to one of the presidential candidates predicted that Senecas will be paid anywhere from “$250 to $500” for their votes this year.
“Vote-buying has been around since I was a little girl, and it gets worse every election,” said Joyce Waterman Cruz, 67, an outspoken Seneca from North Collins. “I don’t think it will ever change.”
As many as five prominent Senecas are expected to be on the presidential ballot when the Seneca Nation holds its elections Nov. 6. The candidates are:
• Richard E. Nephew, 55, a stone-carving artist and former Seneca chief marshal who is a close Porter ally. He is the Tribal Council chairman and has been a member of the council, the Seneca’s all-powerful governing body, for 14 years.
• Snyder, 72, a wealthy businessman and politician who has been one of the Senecas’ most controversial figures for decades. A four-time president, Snyder is making a comeback despite publicly guaranteeing in November 2010 that his political career was over.
• Norman “Cochise” Redeye, 56, a retired Erie County sheriff’s detective. He formerly was chairman of the Seneca Gaming Corp., which runs the Seneca casinos, and he now serves in Porter’s administration as executive director of emergency management, at a salary of more than $50,000 a year.
• Cyrus “Cy” Schindler, 64, a former president who helped to negotiate the casino gaming agreement that was signed in 2002 between the Senecas and New York State. He is a retired ironworker who runs a cigarette business. He announced his candidacy two weeks ago.
• Aaron J. Pierce, 42, who runs cigarette businesses and an ammunition company. Pierce is one of the leaders of an ongoing battle with the federal government over a law preventing mail order sales of cigarettes. So far, according to the Senecas, Pierce has not registered with the tribe as a candidate, but he has until Oct. 22 to do so.
For these men, the stakes of the presidential race are very high.
The winner will serve two years and make $185,000 a year, with a $40,000 annual expense account. He will have control of hiring and firing for more than 1,300 tribal jobs. He will have a major role in all facets of the tribal economy, which – according to the Senecas – has more than twice the combined economic impact of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres.
The next president will be able to walk into the tribe’s casinos and get treated like a king. He’ll have the power to steer casino-related jobs and contracts – some worth millions – to friends, relatives and allies.
He’ll become the public face of a tribe that is locked in a fierce battle with New York State over $460 million in casino revenues that the Senecas are withholding from the state and the cities of Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo.
Money buys votes
The candidates all say they oppose vote-buying, but they all acknowledge that – without their involvement or approval – it will probably run rampant in this year’s election.
“Usually, the presidential candidates don’t hand the money out themselves, but word gets around, and you can go to certain houses and pick up your money from each party,” said Waterman Cruz.
That is exactly how it works, confirmed several other Seneca Nation members, who asked not to be quoted by name.
Snyder said it is not unusual for him or other candidates to pay “travel expenses” for Seneca voters who travel from out of town to vote on the two Seneca reservations, the Cattaraugus and Allegany.
“What we need is to start allowing absentee ballots,” Snyder said.
In 2006, The Buffalo News reported that hundreds of out-of-town Seneca voters were paid as much as $1,200 for their votes and that dozens of voters stayed in free rooms in the Seneca Niagara Casino while they were in town.
Candidates have told The News it is common for Seneca political parties to host large events, where Senecas can meet candidates, devour free meals and, sometimes, get all the free beer and liquor they can drink, before the elections.
“To me, it isn’t right. You’re adding to the alcohol and drug problems we have in our nation,” Waterman Cruz said.
Porter family profits
Some heated allegations have been traded in recent weeks:
Snyder supporters say Porter and his wife, Odie Brant Porter, have made more than $5.9 million working for the tribe over the past decade. Before he became president, Porter earned a $465,000 salary as chief legal counsel for the Senecas, plus an additional $250 for each hour in the courtroom, according to Snyder’s supporters.
The Seneca president earns $185,000 a year, plus the $40,000 expense account, according to Snyder’s staff.
“That’s a huge raise over the salary I made in my last term as president,” said Snyder, who made $123,000. “I wasn’t there for the paycheck. I don’t need the money.”
Pierce said the salary won’t matter to him.
“I’m not going to take a salary if I’m elected,” Pierce said. “I’m financing my own campaign. If I’m elected, I won’t owe special favors to anyone ... except the Seneca people.”
Odie Brant Porter makes at least $185,000 a year as president and CEO of a Seneca Nation subsidiary, the Seneca Construction Management Corp. That company has been a major success since it was started in 2008, according to Porter. It now has several big construction jobs, including an $18.5 million contract to build an Army Reserve center in Schenectady.
Snyder supporters say at least six more members of Porter’s family – including his mother, his sister and some cousins – hold high-ranking, appointed jobs in the Seneca government that bring in at least $375,000.
Meanwhile, Porter has fired or threatened to fire Seneca workers who associate with Snyder’s party, according to Snyder.
Lenith Waterman, 62, said Porter laid her off in late August after he learned she planned to run for tribal clerk on Snyder’s ticket. Waterman had been a $55,000-a-year aide in Porter’s office.
“I have worked for the nation for 20 years, and none of the presidents I worked for were as much of a tyrant as Rob Porter,” said Waterman, a sister of Joyce Waterman Cruz.
Through a spokesman, Porter said he appointed Waterman to her job and had the right to lay her off.
In light of their educational backgrounds and the size of the operations they are running, the Porters’ salaries are not unreasonable, Porter backers said. They said many jobs and casino-related business deals went to Snyder friends and relatives when Snyder was president.
Snyder’s son’s business
Nephew told The News that Snyder’s son, former Seneca Party Chairman Scott Snyder, once told him that he and his live-in girlfriend, Marie Williams, ran businesses that received more than 50 contracts to provide goods and services to the Seneca casinos.
The contracts for Scott Snyder and Williams – including steel, kitchen appliances and banquet chairs for casinos – were worth at least $30 million, Nephew’s campaign said. The Senecas declined to provide a detailed breakdown of the contracts. Scott Snyder is a convicted felon who served 27 months in federal prison for illegally selling cigarettes smuggled from China.
“[After Snyder’s presidency,] I got a clear message from our people that they wanted new leadership,” Nephew said. “They’re tired of the scandals that plagued Barry Snyder’s leadership.”
Barry Snyder responded that he has “never been involved in the processing or awarding of contracts,” as president or in any other capacity. Marie Williams told The News that Nephew greatly exaggerated the number of contracts she has received.
“I got every one of these contracts – not Scott – and I got them fairly,” Williams said. “There was open bidding for every one of them. ... Barry never helped me.”
In a tribe where many people live in poverty in worn-down trailers and some still do not have indoor plumbing, Snyder criticized Porter for recently buying a luxurious $485,000 home in North Buffalo and enrolling his children in the expensive Nichols School.
Snyder said the move illustrates that Porter has “abandoned his people” and put his own personal comfort ahead of his duties as president.
Porter supporters fired back that, for years, Snyder has spent much of his time at his vacation home in Scottsdale, Ariz. They point out that Snyder has a granddaughter who already attends Nichols.
“My main home is in Irving, and during any time when I’ve served as president, I’ve spent almost all my time in Irving,” Snyder told The News. “[Porter] is more interested in fulfilling his own personal goals and aspirations, moving his residence to an elite Buffalo neighborhood and sending his children to an elite private school.”
Porter said his primary home will continue to be on Seneca territory, in the Jimerstown section of Salamanca. He said his wife wanted a Buffalo residence so she can concentrate on overseeing construction of the downtown Buffalo casino.
Porter accused Snyder of “hypocrisy” and said Snyder will resort to “lowdown, dirty tricks and falsehoods” to regain the presidency.
Both Nephew and Redeye raise questions about Snyder’s role in – or, at least, his failure to prevent – a $900,000 embezzlement crime involving the Hickory Stick golf course, built in Lewiston by the Senecas and opened in 2010.
A grand jury last year indicted Bergal Mitchell III, former vice chairman of the Seneca Gaming Corp., on charges of siphoning $338,000 from a $2.1 million land purchase for the golf course. Snyder was the chairman of the corporation while Mitchell, a longtime friend and confidant, allegedly stole the money.
Mitchell denies the allegations. Meanwhile, disbarred lawyer Timothy Toohey, who used to represent Snyder, has pleaded guilty to stealing $202,000 from the land deal. Toohey has said Mitchell was his accomplice. So far, no trial date has been set for Mitchell.
“This cloud over Barry Snyder gets darker and deeper. I want to know, what was his role?” Nephew said.
“Because of the way it went down, if Barry didn’t know what Bergal was doing, he should have known,” Redeye said. “The land purchase was tabled by the gaming corporation. We had a lot of questions about it. As president, Barry then went to the Tribal Council, and they ordered the gaming corporation to purchase the land for $2.1 million, which was $900,000 more than it was worth.”
As it turned out, according to charges filed against Mitchell, the Senecas paid $2.1 million for the Lewiston land, but only about $1.2 million went to the two families that sold the land.
About $900,000 was skimmed from the deal, prosecutors charge. They allege that Mitchell and Toohey got about $540,000 of the missing cash. More than $350,000 has never been accounted for.
While Snyder was never charged criminally in the case, FBI agents said in a 2009 search warrant application that a lawyer involved in the deal had called Mitchell Snyder’s “backroom wheeler dealer,” who handled Snyder’s “dirty work.” The FBI quoted the lawyer as saying the price of the land deal had to be inflated because Snyder had elections coming up and needed to buy votes for $300 apiece.
Snyder vehemently denied those allegations and noted that, after conducting their investigation, federal prosecutors decided not to charge him with anything.
“I didn’t even run for office the year the lawyer said that. ... I think he was blowing smoke,” Snyder said.
Snyder said he regrets that the alleged embezzlement “happened on my watch,” but he insisted he had nothing to do with any crimes. He said he was questioned in detail by the FBI and testified before a federal grand jury.
“If I knew about [the alleged theft], it never, ever would have happened,” Snyder said. “All I know about the case is what the FBI told me. It’s not my call whether [Mitchell] is guilty or not.”
Did Snyder pressure the gaming corporation to approve the $2.1 million land deal? He doesn’t deny that he did so.
“But if I had information that we could have gotten the land at a cheaper price, I would have held out for a cheaper price,” Snyder said. “As I have told everyone, if I knew anything was wrong, I wouldn’t have gone along with it.”