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Former Seneca leader faces candidate seeking to be first woman president

Maurice A. “Moe” John’s supporters call him a fearless fighter for the Seneca Nation of Indians, and John says the tribe has prospered under his rule and that of other Seneca Party leaders over the past four decades.

Darlene Miller says Senecas deserve much better leadership, and she promises to provide it if voters decide to make her the first woman president since the tribe began elections in 1848.

Seneca voters will decide on Tuesday which of the two 66-year-olds will lead them for the next two years.

The new president will lead a tribe that operates three casinos and has more than 5,600 employees, making the Seneca Nation one of the 10 biggest employers in all of Western New York. The Senecas estimate that their businesses have an annual economic impact of $850 million in New York State.

“Over the past decades, the Seneca Party has done a lot of good for our people,” John said. “And I’ve been through a good history of working with our people and helping our people to progress.”

Miller counters by saying, “I feel I have the leadership qualities to manage our government. I have a background in finance. I know how to protect our assets and take care of our people.”

Both candidates are from the Senecas’ Allegany Territory in the Southern Tier. They have waged a relatively quiet election battle over the past two months. They seek election to a job that, in the past, has paid a salary of $185,000 – more than Buffalo’s mayor, the Erie County executive or any other elected office-holder in Western New York.

John, who formerly ran prosperous gasoline and cigarette businesses near Salamanca, served as Seneca president from November 2006 until November 2008. Over the past two years, he has served as chief of staff to outgoing Seneca president Barry E. Snyder.

John is popular with many people in the Seneca Nation, in part because of his long-running tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service, an agency that is not popular with many Senecas.

The IRS filed a tax lien against him in Cattaraugus County in 1990, claiming he owed millions of dollars in excise taxes related to cigarette and gasoline sales. As of April 2007, the IRS was seeking tax payments of more than $9 million from John, who at that time was the Senecas’ president.

“I can’t pay it off. I don’t have $10 million in my back pocket,” John told The Buffalo News at that time. He declined to discuss the tax issue in an interview on Friday, except to say the dispute was related to concerns over “sovereignty for our people.”

John also has been an outspoken critic of the actions of the U.S. government involving the Seneca land where the government built the Kinzua Dam near Warren, Pa.. In the early 1960s, the government forcibly removed 140 Seneca families – including John’s family – from their homes, razing the homes to make way for the dam.

He became mired in a controversy in August 2009, when the Seneca Tribal Council removed John from his job as the Seneca Gaming Corp.’s treasurer after allegations were made that $120,000 in tribal funds had been misappropriated. John vehemently denied any wrongdoing and was never criminally charged.

John charged that the accusations against him were politically motivated. He said the money he was accused of misappropriating was rightfully owed to him, his family and staff as severance, sick time and other payouts.

“It was a political tactic by one of our ex-leaders,” he said on Friday.

According to John, the tribe has progressed over the past two years, with the recent opening of a senior citizens center in Salamanca, improvements in childhood education programs and the construction of new homes for Senecas. He said he is “extremely proud” of the accomplishments during Snyder’s latest term as president.

In the next two years, “anything’s possible,” including the possible development of another Seneca casino, John said. He said he is proud to have Barry Snyder’s endorsement in the presidential race and hopes to continue many of the policies espoused by Snyder. Snyder has been elected by voters to five non-consecutive terms.

Miller said she believes that her political organization, the upstart One Nation Party, can do much better.

“We are a grassroots organization. We’ve been out knocking on the doors of the Seneca people,” she said. “I believe it’s time for a new era for Senecas, time for a change.”

A Tribal Council member since 2010, Miller said she has a degree in accounting from the State University of New York’s Empire State College. She worked more than 14 years in leadership roles with Seneca Health System, a $25-million-a-year agency that oversees health care programs for the Senecas.

Miller spent four years as acting director of Seneca Health System, and two years as the agency’s acting chief executive officer. Although she feels she is the most qualified candidate for president this year, she said she has no personal animosity toward her opponent.

“Mo and I have known each other all our lives. We’re the same age, we grew up together. We went to school together,” she said. “As an individual, he is a nice person. As an elected official, I really don’t want to comment anything negative about him.”

Miller said she was upset to learn on Oct. 24 that the Seneca Nation’s Elections Board, which she said is controlled by allies of Barry Snyder, removed nine One Nation Party candidates from this year’s ballot because of alleged problems with their election paperwork.

“This is the sort of backroom politics that hurt our nation’s progress, hurt our people and hurt our reputation as a representative democracy,” she said.

Seneca Party officials deny the allegations, saying legitimate complaints were raised about the barred candidates’ election filings.

In addition to president, the Senecas will elect a new treasurer, a new clerk, and eight new Tribal Council members.

Fifty years ago, the women of the Seneca Nation received the right to vote in tribal elections, and now is the time to elect the first woman president, Miller said.

“This election is going to make history,” she said.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com