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Michigan tribes oppose federal court nominee

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Seven Michigan tribes have asked U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin to block or deny the confirmation of attorney Robert Jonker’s nomination to a federal judgeship because of his representation of anti-Indian casino groups.

In letters dated Aug. 23 and Sept. 11, tribal leaders said Jonker’s “ethics, motivations and alliances as revealed by this litigation [against some of the state’s tribes] indicate a bias against Indian tribes and raise serious questions regarding his fitness to serve as federal district court judge.”

A spokesman at Levin’s Washington, D.C., office said the senator had just received the letter and had not had a chance to read it. Messages left at Stabenow’s office were not returned.

The letters to the federal legislators were signed by Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan Chief Fred Cantu, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Council President Susan LaFernier, Little River Bank of Ottawa Indians Tribal Council Speaker Stephen Parsons, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians Tribal Chairman David K. Sprague, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians Tribal Chairman John Miller, Hannahville Indian Community Chairman Kenneth Meshigaud and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Chairman Frank Ettawageshik.

Jonker was nominated by Bush in June for the position of U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Michigan, to replace retiring Judge Gordon Quist. His hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet been scheduled. Jonker is a partner in the firm of Warner Norcross & Judd LLP of Grand Rapids. He has represented various anti-Indian casino groups, including Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos, Citizens Exposing the Truth About Casinos and Michigan Gambling Opposition.

Jonker did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The tribal leaders said Jonker has “led a costly and protracted war of attrition” through federal and state litigation to delay and deny several tribes their right to open casinos, and has threatened the ongoing operations of two existing tribal casinos “that employ thousands of Michigan citizens and generate millions of dollars in local revenue and taxes.”

The tribes said Jonker used “every available tactic and device to delay a resolution of claims having little or no merit.” They cited Jonker’s representation of TOMAC in a lawsuit against the Interior Department involving land into trust for the Pokagon band’s casino project, in which the Washington, D.C., court of appeals said the anti-Indian casino group’s claims were “specious” and had “no merit.”

They cited Jonker’s representation of CETAC and MichGO against the casino projects of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians and Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish (Gun Lake Tribe) Band of Pottawatomi Indians, which are “based essentially on the same frivolous claims made in the TOMAC case.”

Tribal leaders pointed to evidence that Jonker’s client TOMAC is backed by Boyd Gaming, a Nevada gaming company that paid Kevin Flynn, a local non-Indian gaming magnate, “over $7 million to stall the casino projects of the Pokagon Bank and the Huron Band for five years.” Boyd owns and operates the Blue Chip Casino, a riverboat casino in nearby northwestern Indiana that will face significant competition from the tribal casinos in southwestern Michigan. A 2001 investigation by the Illinois Gaming Regulatory Commission “indicated that Kevin Flynn had ties to organized crime figures,” the tribal leaders said.

Finally, the tribal leaders point to Jonker’s membership in the anti-Indian casino group 23 Is Enough, which recently distributed an e-mail opposing the Gun Lake Tribe’s casino project that included materials from the Web site of Frank Parlato Jr., of upstate New York.

The materials from Parlato, a vociferous opponent of the Seneca Nation of Indians, included an image of an American Indian that tribal leaders and state Rep. Mary Waters and Sen. Mark Schauer denounced as “bigoted,” “racial intolerance” and “anti-Native American sentiment.”

Only three of the tribes – Huron, Pokagon and Gun Lake – have had direct legal engagements with the anti-Indian casino coalition for which Jonker has been the lead attorney; and in Gun Lake’s case, the litigation is still pending. But the other tribes have joined the call to block his confirmation because all of the issues raise questions about his “ethics and fitness” to serve as a federal court judge, Gun Lake spokesman James Nye said.

“The other tribes, I would think, would not want to go before Robert Jonker if he were confirmed to the Western District, so I think there’s a legitimate concern that you wouldn’t want to face an individual with a track record such as his for that reason,” Nye said.

Sprague lauded the nations’ involvement.

“We are very encouraged by the support of the other tribes in opposing Robert Jonker’s nomination to the federal court of the Western District of Michigan. As recent years have shown us, when the tribes stand together we can accomplish great things,” Sprague said.

A few years ago, the state’s federally recognized tribes formed the United Tribes of Michigan, an association that represents tribal interests in the state capitol and to serve as a central clearinghouse to disseminate information among the chairs, tribal council members and staffs on issues of common concern and interest.