IRVING – A triumphant Barry E. Snyder Sr. began his fifth term as Seneca Nation president Tuesday, pledging to his people that he will not back down in the Senecas’ fight with New York State over hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenue.
After taking the oath of office in a Seneca bingo hall, Snyder said he will continue to fight for the tribe’s rights to be the exclusive proprietors of slot machine gambling in Western New York.
“I pledge to you that no casino revenues will be paid to New York State without the assurance that our exclusivity rights are honored,” Snyder said, igniting applause from a packed audience.
In a later interview, Snyder told The Buffalo News that his top priority as president will be negotiating a new casino deal with the state. The current 14-year deal, called a compact by the Senecas, could expire in 2016. But if both the Senecas and state agree, it can be extended for seven more years.
So far, the Senecas have withheld more than $460 million in payments to the state, because the Senecas feel that New York violated its promise of slot machine exclusivity to the Senecas by opening casinos at racetracks in Batavia, Hamburg and Canandaigua.
That $460 million-plus is being withheld from the state, and the cities of Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca. An arbitration panel is trying to determine whether the state acted improperly by installing devices similar to slot machines at the horse tracks.
“All the state’s got to do is remove the machines from the racinos, calculate all the money we’ve lost because of those machines, and pay us,” Snyder said in the interview.
The feisty words came one week after the silver-haired, 72-year-old businessman defeated five other men in a presidential election that Snyder called the toughest of his career.
The region’s highest-paid elected official, with a salary of $185,000 a year, Snyder said he now hopes to work in close cooperation with all Seneca officeholders, even those who accused him of thievery and malfeasance during the election campaign.
A former president, Maurice “Moe” John, was announced as Snyder’s chief of staff. John said he hopes to reach out to Snyder’s rivals and persuade them to work peacefully with his new boss.
“We have to make amends for hard feelings,” John said. “We need to work together in the future.”
John’s emergence as Snyder’s top aide came as a surprise to some in the audience. In 2009, the Seneca Tribal Council threw John out of his job as treasurer of Seneca Gaming Corp. Council members alleged at the time that John and an aide had misappropriated $120,000 in tribal funds.
According to John, those charges were politically motivated, and he pointed out that the accusations were never followed up with any criminal prosecution.
As Snyder took office Tuesday, his political archenemy, departing President Robert Odawi Porter, sat quietly in the audience, far away from the podium. He left the hall through a side entrance immediately after Snyder finished his speech.
Because Seneca law does not permit anyone to serve as president for two consecutive terms, Porter ran for treasurer this year. He was defeated by a Snyder ally, Rodney Pierce, who is Porter’s brother-in-law.
The transition from Porter’s administration to Snyder’s has been, for some Senecas, a painful one. Snyder said he plans to make “many changes” in Seneca Nation government, and, according to Seneca sources, a number of Porter appointees already have been fired or laid off.
According to Snyder and several other Seneca officials, Porter last week “laid off” himself and some of his closest aides. “The president laid off himself and others so they could collect severance benefits,” one Seneca source said.
“I did lay off some of my staff, so they could collect benefits, … but I don’t think I laid myself off,” Porter told The News. “My job ended [Tuesday.] There was no point in laying myself off.”
Asked for his thoughts about the election, Porter said, “I’m doing OK. This is a democracy.”
A Harvard Law School graduate who was popular with some Senecas and very unpopular with others, Porter said he is exploring “several different options” for his next career move.
Porter’s wife, Odie Brant Porter, sister of Rodney Pierce, will not be retained in her $185,000-a-year job as president and CEO of a Seneca subsidiary, Seneca Construction Management Corp., Snyder told The News.
In addition to Snyder and Pierce, many other newly elected officeholders took their oaths during Tuesday’s ceremony.
Among the six people installed as assessors for the tribe was David Pierce. Last month, he created a furor when he showed up at a Halloween costume party, hosted by Snyder’s political party, wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume and a “Rob Porter” campaign sign on his chest.
The campaign was a nasty one, Snyder said, but he pledged that he is ready to work with every Seneca elected official, including those who made harsh allegations against him.
“I can work with anyone,” Snyder said.
This will be his fifth two-year term as president. He also has served two terms as treasurer. He said historians have told him that since 1848, only two Senecas have been elected president more than Snyder.
When Snyder completed his last previous term in 2010, he stood up at a similar gathering and promised that his political career was over. He later said he meant it at the time but was persuaded to make a comeback by people who felt that Porter was leading the Senecas in the wrong direction.
“This really will be my last term,” Snyder said Tuesday. “It really is.”