SAN DIEGO - Following a year in which the Seminole Tribe of Florida garnered worldwide attention for its purchase of Hard Rock International, the tribe recently was honored before its peers and much of the tribal finance industry when it received the Native American Finance Officers Association;s ''Deal of the Year'' award for 2007 at NAFOA's Spring Finance Conference.
Presented to the Seminole Tribe, along with the banking and legal team leaders involved in bringing the Hard Rock deal to fruition, the ''Large Deal'' award was among the highlights of NAFOA's inaugural Financial Leadership Awards Dinner March 26.
The Medium Deal of the Year award went to the Seneca Nation's Capital Improvements Authority, with the Small Deal of the Year going to First Nations Capital Partners - a private-equity fund initiated by Colusa, Rincon, and the Wells Fargo Community Development Corp.
''The Seminole Tribe of Florida is honored to receive this award and proud of our achievements,'' said Seminole President Richard Bowers. ''We share our award with all tribes across Indian country and wish all tribes continued success in the pursuit of their financial endeavors.''
The award, for the Seminoles' reported $965 million deal, marked the first time that an American Indian tribe purchased a major international corporation. Other awards for that deal also went to those who facilitated the effort - Merrill Lynch & Co. and the law firm of Greenberg Traurig. As underwriter, Merrill Lynch also played a major role, along with the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Dorsey & Whitney, in the Senecas' Medium Deal of the Year award - an innovative $160 million bond issuance by the nation's Capital Improvements Authority.
''Merrill Lynch's Native American Banking group is proud to serve two of the tribes winning NAFOA Deal of the Year awards,'' Jeff Carey, managing director with Merrill's Native American Banking Group, said of the Seminole and Seneca transactions.
''NAFOA's awards recognize best practices and accomplishments in Indian country and support the increasing profile of tribes in the capital markets.''
''The Seneca Nation is honored to receive NAFOA's [Medium] Deal of the Year award, and I am proud of the Seneca leadership for taking the bold step of borrowing public funds to accelerate construction for our capital projects,'' said Kevin Seneca, the nation's treasurer and capital improvements authority chairman.
''These funds will be used to add nearly 500,000 square feet of community and administrative building space and for much-needed upgrades and expansion to our infrastructure. It is important to celebrate these milestones so Wall Street can become more familiar with successful financial transactions in Indian country and thereby make credit more accessible and affordable.''
''To echo the tribute paid to Rincon's recently deceased chairman, Vernon Wright, by Rincon Vice Chairman Bo Mazzetti, we, too, believe that the vision, courage, fortitude and unity exemplified by FNCP in bringing together different tribes in their collective quest for off-reservation economic diversification is a feat to be commended,'' said John Upshur, managing partner of FNCP, the first intertribal private equity fund.
''Further and even greater successes can only follow this noteworthy accomplishment.''
NAFOA's conference was attended by more than 400 people, including 250 tribal representatives from 120 tribes. Fifty-eight companies supported and participated in the event, along with 12 major Native associations and nine U.S. and state government offices.
One of the conference's highlights was the announcement by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of its intention to challenge the IRS policy against tribal nations financing commercial projects with tax-exempt bonds. The band, its legal representatives from Dorsey & Whitney, and other experts discussed the plan before a packed general session audience, and requested financial support from other tribes for its anticipated court battle on this test case on behalf of Indian country.
Other awards went to Jay Cholwell, Elk Valley Rancheria, for CFO of the Year and to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (Gila River Indian Community) for Financial Literacy Program of the Year. Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians Chairman John Feliz Jr. and Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby were co-honorees for Tribal Leader of the Year.
''Our awards dinner was an amazing success, and an emotional one for many of the recipients and those in the audience,'' NAFOA President Bill Lomax said.
''Not only is it important that we're honoring some of the most progressive and innovative tribes for their financial efforts, but I think these awards will inspire many other tribes to think big and work smart.''
''Overall, I thought it was an excellent conference with a lot of good substance and diverse participation,'' said Kathleen Nilles, a partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight's Washington, D.C., office, who participated in two sessions on tribal tax issues.
''Many attendees mentioned to me that they thought it was the best NAFOA meeting so far.''
Lomax, who was elected president of the non-profit, Native-governed association, said NAFOA continues to be at the forefront of educating tribes about financial issues affecting Indian country.
''NAFOA is Indian country's financial watchdog and we will continue to provide our members the best and most informative finance conferences possible,'' he said.
''We heard all the positive comments, and we could certainly feel the energy and the feeling of togetherness at this event. The tribes want a conference venue they can call their own, and they want NAFOA to provide services beyond conferences. They want NAFOA to continue to provide the best speakers addressing relevant issues to Indian country, and that's exactly what we plan to do.''