When Barry E. Snyder Sr. took office for his fifth, nonconsecutive term as Seneca Nation president last month, he publicly assured the Seneca people that he would work peacefully with all Seneca leaders, including those who opposed him during a nasty election campaign.
Shortly after that, Snyder gave what amounts to a $97,000-a-year pay cut to several of his political rivals.
Since then, he has fired or laid off dozens of Seneca Nation tribal workers who supported other candidates in the election campaign.
The new president’s moves are business as usual in the Seneca Nation, which is known for hardball politics, according to Snyder’s supporters.
But critics claim Snyder’s actions are mean-spirited and go far beyond what normally happens after the Senecas elect a new president every two years.
“It’s not normal Seneca politics ... We’re trying to get official numbers, but we’ve heard more than 200 people were laid off,” said Travis Jimerson, a Tribal Council member who headed a political group that opposed Snyder in the election.
The Seneca Nation is believed to be one of Western New York’s 10 largest employers, with about 1,300 people in tribal government jobs and more than 3,000 in other jobs related to its three casinos.
Jimerson sees the recent dismissals as reprisals against innocent people.
“About 10 members of my family have been laid off. A lot of them are people who didn’t get involved in the election, and some of them didn’t even vote, because they didn’t want to be involved. They all got the ax because they are related to me,” he said.
Businesswoman Marie Williams, a Snyder supporter who lives with Snyder’s son Scott, disagreed.
“That’s being fabricated ... Approximately 70 people were laid off,” she said. “This is normal procedure, and everybody knows it. That’s why people say that when you take a job with the [Seneca Nation], you’re only guaranteed two years, before the next president comes in. None of this has been done in a vicious way.”
Seneca Nation officials declined this week to provide any numbers on layoffs. Snyder did not return calls to comment. Susan Asquith, a public relations consultant for the Senecas, declined to comment.
On Nov. 6, after a hard-fought election campaign against five other candidates, the 72-year-old Snyder won election to the president’s post.
Weeks later, Snyder fired Jimerson, Tribal Council Chairman Richard E. Nephew and at least one other Tribal Council member from their “legislative specialist” positions in Seneca government, according to Jimerson and several other Senecas.
Tribal Council members get paid by the meeting – $150 for each meeting they attend – but if they are also designated as “legislative specialists” for the tribe, they get an additional $97,000 a year.
Nephew was Snyder’s closest challenger in the election, losing to Snyder by 225 votes, and Jimerson was one of the leaders of Nephew’s campaign.
During the campaign, Nephew and Jimerson upset Snyder’s supporters by repeatedly accusing Snyder of theft and malfeasance, charges that Snyder denied. Snyder, who has been involved in tribal politics for more than 40 years, has never been criminally charged with misusing Seneca funds.
The campaign was characterized by harsh accusations, destruction of campaign signs and vote-buying, a Seneca tradition.
After the race, Snyder called it the toughest political battle of his career but said he wanted to work peacefully with those who opposed him.
“I got involved in politics, and I knew the repercussions,” Jimerson said. “But a lot of other people who have been laid off are people who have nothing to do with politics ... When Barry got elected, he gave a beautiful speech about unity and healing the nation. Instead, he’s been full of spite and hatred.”
Nephew could not be reached to comment, but comments similar to Jimerson’s came from Sherry Casey, a Seneca who does not work for the Indian tribe yet was active in Nephew’s campaign.
Several other Senecas contacted The Buffalo News with complaints, but they said they are afraid to have their names published in the newspaper.
When Robert Odawi Porter, Snyder’s predecessor, took office in late 2010, he laid off “about 20 people” from tribal government, most of them at high levels, Casey said.
“A lot of the people who have been let go by Barry had meager jobs ... these are people who were barely getting by,” Casey said.
Those characterizations are unfair and untrue, said Williams. She noted that Porter last year fired Susan Abrams, an outspoken Tribal Council member, from her legislative assistant post because of disagreements between her and Porter. Porter issued a statement last year saying he fired Abrams from the $97,000-a-year post because she failed to be a “constructive force” in Seneca Nation government.
Abrams was later accused in a Seneca Nation court of being a loan shark, lending money at illegally high interest rates, but the charge was ultimately dropped.
Abrams said she believed Porter fired her because she refused to be a “yes-man” to him.