White House is reportedly vetting ‘excellent: candidates for NIGC chair’

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WASHINGTON – A former tribal chairman, a former vice chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, and an attorney with broad experience in tribal legal, financial and policy counseling are among several candidates believed to be undergoing the White House vetting process to fill the position of chairman of the commission.

Indian country is abuzz with speculation about the appointment of the next NIGC chairman.

In recent weeks, the National Indian Gaming Association and tribal leaders have written to President Barack Obama, urging him to appoint a new chairman immediately to replace current Chairman Phil Hogen, and to fill a seat on the three-person commission that has been vacant for years.

Indian Country Today learned of three prominent names – Gerald Danforth, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, Elizabeth Homer, Osage Nation of Oklahoma, and Debora Juarez, Blackfeet Nation of Montana – that are being floated as potential candidates, although the field is said to include several more.

The White House typically does not comment on candidates at this point in the process, but spokesman Shin Inouye said, “The president remains committed to filling this important position.”

There is no indication of when the vetting process will be completed.

Danforth served two terms as chairman of the Oneida Tribe, overseeing every aspect of tribal government and the tribe’s economic development during a period of rapid growth.

“Indian gaming is here to stay,” Danforth wrote in a 2005 article in Indian Gaming magazine. “Indian gaming has not proliferated organized crime nor has it caused countless negative speculations that some naysayers once projected. Indian gaming has taken many reservations and surrounding communities that were once economically, socially and educationally depressed and is turning them into places of prosperity with safe neighborhoods, better health care, and educational opportunities that have never been seen before. I’ll say it again: Indian gaming is definitely here to stay.”

Danforth retired from the U.S. Navy after serving 30 years in dozens of postings around the world, according to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Web site, which posted an article called “Hometown Hero – Gerald Danforth: A career Navy man to Chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin” in 2005.

“He captained a patrol boat in the deltas of South Vietnam, a service made famous by the movie, ‘Apocalypse Now,’ which captured the difficulty and instant horrors of patrolling a river in which every embankment, raft and river boat could hide the enemy. … Today, Gerald Danforth is drawing from his 30 years of military experience to serve as chairman of the Oneida Indian Nation located near Green Bay,” the posting said.

Danforth has testified in countless hearings before congressional and senate committees, most recently in March before the House Natural Resources Committee where he supported federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

He was among more than 100 tribal leaders who signed a letter of support for Obama last September during the presidential campaign.

J.R. Matthews, Quapaw Tribe vice chairman and NIGA treasurer, who has been a vocal critic of Hogen and the current commission, was asked to comment on Danforth’s potential candidacy.

“I’ve known Gerry for many years. I think he’d make an excellent choice. He was tribal administrator before he was elected chief. He’s served as an exemplary tribal leader. He understands tribal politics. He understands the federal government. He understands what it takes to make this industry work and he understands tribal regulations.”

Matthews said the rumored field of candidates is “excellent.

“From everyone that I’ve heard about who is being vetted, we (NIGA) pretty much support most of them.”

Matthews reiterated the importance of a fully operating, fully staffed commission.

“The budgets of Indian Health Service and the BIA combined don’t even approach the Indian gaming industry, which is a $26 billion-plus industry and is the basis of tribal economies,” Matthews said.

Tom Rogers, of Carlyle Consulting, said Native Americans are underrepresented on the current commission.

“A Native American with a broad breadth of knowledge of Native American culture, history and Native American gaming should be perceived as a prerequisite for senior positions at the NIGC, and not as disqualifications. All of this is to be overlaid by an incredible sense of ethics and demonstrated leadership.”

Homer is an attorney and principal in the Washington firm Homer Law.

She served a three-year appointment as NIGC vice chairman. She is a proponent of collaborative rule-making and was instrumental in creating tribal advisory committees and other consultative activities during her tenure on the commission – qualities that would go over well with tribal leaders who accuse Hogen and the current commission of high-handed disregard for the consultation process and for overreaching their statutory authority in proposing new regulations without input from the nations.

Homer knows her way around Washington as well. She served as the director of the Office of American Indian Trust in the Interior Department where she worked closely with tribal governments and federal policy makers on issues important to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

She supervised the implementation of a number of policy priorities dealing with tribal natural and cultural resources, consultation and negotiated rule-making including former President Bill Clinton’s executive orders regarding sacred sites and tribal consultation.

Juarez is an attorney with the firm of Williams Kastner in Seattle. According to the firm’s Web site, she had unique experience with the state’s Indian tribes, and an expertise in legal and financial counseling to tribe’s in the areas of debt financing, corporate structure, economic development, natural resources, gaming, tribal-state inter-local agreements and other areas.

Juarez began her career as a public defender and joined Evergreen Legal Services Native American Project where she represented a majority of the state’s 29 Indian nations in areas such as treaty rights, natural resources, Indian Child Welfare and economic development.

She has served as a judge presiding over both criminal and civil cases and also served as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs where she was lead policy and legal adviser under two administrations.