A prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm that recently hired former Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter as a senior counsel received millions of dollars in fees from the Senecas while Porter held leadership posts with the tribe, The Buffalo News has learned.
Elliott I. Portnoy, a partner at the SNR Denton law firm, went to college with Porter, has been one of his closest friends for decades and was best man in Porter’s wedding, Seneca Nation sources confirmed.
Critics of Porter in the Seneca Nation contend that Porter helped steer at least $6 million in Seneca Nation legal fees to his old friend’s law firm. They question whether Porter’s new job – announced in late January – is a reward for steering that business toward SNR Denton.
“To my knowledge, Rob Porter’s close association with [Portnoy] was never disclosed to the Tribal Council,” said a former Seneca Nation leader who is familiar with the situation but who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak by the current Seneca Nation government.
“I think the Tribal Council should have been given that information before they approved the hiring of this law firm,” the source said.
Porter and his supporters say he had no involvement with the Senecas’ decision to hire SNR Denton. They also say Porter was hired by the firm on the strength of his credentials, which include a Harvard Law School degree, years spent as a college professor and expertise in Indian law issues.
Any accusation that he steered millions of dollars toward his friend’s law firm is “a bogus allegation,” Porter responded. He said he believes he is the target of “personal vendettas” by Seneca Nation leaders in the administration of the current president, Barry E. Snyder Sr.
According to Seneca Nation records sent to The News, the Washington law firm earned more than $6.1 million in Seneca legal fees between November 2009 and the end of 2012.
Those records indicate that SNR Denton received at least 60 separate payments from the Senecas, ranging from $816 to $491,863.
During that time, SNR Denton represented the Senecas’ Kinzua Dam Relicensing Commission, which is trying to get a federal license to operate a hydropower plant on the Kinzua Dam in northern Pennsylvania. Potentially, the Senecas could make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission selects them to run the hydropower operation.
Supporters of Porter said that the SNR Denton law firm was hired after a national search and that Porter stayed out of the search because of his friendship with Portnoy.
“Rob Porter did not choose the SNR Denton law firm,” said Wendy Huff, former executive director of the Kinzua Dam panel. “We looked at about six or seven law firms, and I believe we interviewed two or three. … It was our commission that recommended [SNR Denton] and the Tribal Council that hired them.”
Huff still sits on the commission but is no longer its executive director. The current executive director, David Bova, hung up his phone when asked about the Porter situation.
Repeated efforts to obtain comment from Snyder; his chief of staff, Maurice John; Seneca Nation Treasurer Rodney Pierce, and other leaders of the current Seneca government were unsuccessful. “They are not going to comment,” said Susan Asquith, a spokeswoman.
The former Seneca official who spoke anonymously about the situation said he believes it was a “conflict of interest” for Porter to take a job with a law firm that earned more than $6 million from the Senecas.
“Porter was our nation’s senior legal adviser, and then, our president. Under his leadership, we gave more than $6 million in business to the law firm where his best friend is a partner,” the former Seneca official said. “To me, it isn’t right.”
Porter served as Seneca president for one two-year term, until November 2012. For several years before that, he was the Senecas’ chief legal counsel.
After one of the most hard-fought election campaigns in Seneca history, Porter was defeated last November in his run for treasurer. Pierce, who is Porter’s brother-in-law, defeated him.
Pierce ran on a ticket headed by Snyder, a former ally of Porter’s who is now a rival. Snyder was elected president and is serving his fifth nonconsecutive term in that post. Tribal law bars anyone from serving two terms in a row.
A spokesman for SNR Denton said Porter was hired because of his “experience and legal knowledge.” The law firm, which calls itself one of the nation’s leading experts on Indian law, noted that Porter has a Harvard law degree.
“We are proud of our long-standing work for the Seneca Nation, which began in 2007 under President Maurice John, and involved a wide range of legal and public policy matters,” the spokesman said. Porter “joined SNR Denton as a senior counsel this year as a first-tier addition to our nationally ranked Native American Law and Policy practice. This practice includes well-regarded practitioners in all aspects of Indian law, and includes several former officials from the Department of Interior, the National Indian Gaming Commission, and a range of specialists who are well-known in the field.”
Porter issued this statement:
“SNR Denton was hired by the Seneca Nation during the administration of President Maurice John in 2007 following a competitive national search for firms qualified to work on hydropower relicensing projects. I was the Nation legal counsel at the time and recused myself from the law firm selection process due to my personal relationship with Mr. Portnoy. The search process was coordinated by Deputy Counsel Chris Karns at the direction of President John. Under Nation law, the Kinzua Dam Relicensing Commission is an independent agency and, as a result, I had no role in the workings of the Commission or its choice of law firms as either president or chief counsel.
“I am excited to be a part of the Firm’s ongoing growth in its tribal practice. After leaving office and reviewing a number of options for my next steps in the legal profession that included going back to my tenured professorship, I am honored to be working for a global law firm dedicated to protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
“This bogus allegation is simply the personal vendetta of a few of my political adversaries, something all too common in politics. Rather than focusing on the real issues facing the Seneca Nation, these bitter people would rather spend their time trying to make me a scapegoat for all of their problems.”
SNR Denton stopped working for the Seneca Nation last year, the law firm said.
The tribe’s last payment to the law firm was made in December, according to the ledger document obtained by The News. No explanation was given for the end of the law firm’s service to the Senecas.