Seneca president alleges that tribal critic is a loan shark
Abrams denies wrongdoing as she is called on to resign from council
By Dan Herbeck
News Staff Reporter
Published:November 8, 2011, 12:22 Am
Updated: November 8, 2011, 7:28 AM
The president of the Seneca Nation has accused an outspoken member of the Tribal Council of "loan-sharking," saying she and her husband are suspected of charging more than 30 percent interest on loans to tribal members who are experiencing money problems.
Susan P. Abrams engaged in "criminal behavior," President Robert Odawi Porter said in an interview, and she should either resign from the council or be impeached.
Abrams, 57, of Irving, denied any wrongdoing. She told The Buffalo News that Porter has a vendetta against her because she frequently questions his positions.
She alleged that Porter is especially upset with her because she raised questions earlier this year about the appointment of Porter's wife, Odie Brant Porter, as the $185,000-a-year CEO of a tribal entity, Seneca Construction Management Co.
"These are trumped-up charges [because] I'm not a 'yes man' to Rob Porter," Abrams said. "Porter told me back on March 7 that he would impeach me if he could. Now he's grasping at straws to go after me."
Porter said the loan-sharking accusation against Abrams arose from a document that Abrams filed last December in Seneca Peacemakers Court. The News obtained a copy of the document -- a request for a monetary judgment against one of her neighbors, Jordan A. O'Connell.
The document indicates that O'Connell had signed an agreement last year to borrow money from Abrams and her husband and that he would pay the couple $500 per quarter and an additional 21 percent interest each month.
"There had been rumors for some time about loans [Abrams] had been making to people, but nobody knew the extent of what kind of money she was extorting from people until we saw these documents that she filed herself," Porter said.
"To me, this is extraordinary. ... It's to the extent of stealing from people."
Loan-sharking, also known as usury, is defined as lending money at an illegally high interest rate. According to state law, it is a felony in New York State to charge an interest rate above 25 percent a year. O'Connell filed a complaint against Abrams with the Seneca Nation Ethics Commission last month, but the complaint was dismissed after O'Connell failed to show up for a recent hearing on the matter.
Standing on the porch of his ramshackle home on Route 438, O'Connell said he intends to refile his complaint.
"Every word of what I put in that complaint is the truth," said O'Connell, 28, an unemployed electrician. "The only reason I didn't attend the hearing ... is that nobody ever told me I was required to be there. My lawyer was there, and I thought he could represent my interest."
According to his official, now-dismissed complaint and what he told The News, O'Connell borrowed $1,625 last year from Abrams and her husband, Michael. The loan agreement required him to pay an upfront fee of $500, which would be an interest payment of more than 30 percent.
When O'Connell fell seven months behind in paying off the loan, Abrams and her husband filed a court petition against him, seeking $16,448 -- or more than 1,000 percent interest -- O'Connell said.
"I was down on my luck, and these people took advantage of me," O'Connell said.
Members of the Seneca Nation get "annuity" payments of $2,125 from the Nation every four months, or a total of $8,500 annually, Porter said.
O'Connell said that he borrowed the money from the Abramses in May 2010 and intended to pay them back when he received his next annuity check in June but that he failed to pay it back.
As of June of this year, he said, the couple was seeking more than $16,000 from him.
"I consider this predatory behavior, and I believe there are other victims who are afraid to come forward," said Porter, the Seneca president.
Susan Abrams said to The News that O'Connell told her that Porter was paying O'Connell's legal bills and that Porter offered O'Connell $5,000 to refile his complaint with the Ethics Commission. Porter and O'Connell denied those accusations.
What is undisputed is that Abrams at one point was a staunch Porter ally -- one that Porter appointed to two positions in Seneca Nation government -- and that they had a bitter falling-out earlier this year.
Shortly after taking office in November 2010, Porter appointed Abrams to fill a vacant position in the Tribal Council, calling her an "outstanding leader." The council is the main governing body of the Seneca Nation, and members receive a small stipend for attending meetings.
Soon after that, Porter named Abrams to an additional job as a legislative assistant at nearly $100,000 a year, making her one of the Indian nation's highest-paid employees.
But in June of this year, Porter fired her from the legislative assistant's job, saying she had failed to be a "constructive force" in the Nation. He declined to give further detail.
Abrams fired back with accusations that Porter was trying to be a "dictator," saying that she was one of the few in the tribe's government to stand up against him.
Last week, Abrams said she believes that Porter is trying to have her booted off the Tribal Council because she continues to disagree with him at meetings.
Asked for details of the loan to O'Connell and the required payments, Abrams said her husband made all the loan arrangements.
In a telephone interview, Michael Abrams denied that he engaged in loan-sharking, saying he lends money to Senecas who are in need to "try to help people out."
Asked about the $500 upfront payment and the interest terms, Michael Abrams said: "[O'Connell] can say anything he wants to say ... There was no interest." Any allegations of wrongdoing by him or his wife are "bogus," he said.
According to the charge filed against Susan Abrams by the Ethics Commission, she is accused of using her office in the Nation "to satisfy personal interests," making "a usurious loan at an excessive rate of interest" and using her official position to "threaten or intimidate" O'Connell into paying.
According to Susan Abrams, her husband recently reached an agreement for O'Connell to pay off the loan without interest.
That is true, O'Connell said, but he added that he still feels he was taken advantage of.
Asked about his wife's appointment to a $185,000-a-year position, Porter accused Susan Abrams of "trying to deflect attention from her own actions by attacking me and my family."
He described his wife as an experienced, highly qualified and well-educated person who -- before taking her current job -- oversaw "more than $180 million in contracts" in her previous job as executive director of the Seneca Nation Capital Improvements Authority.
Abrams has been an outspoken -- and at times, controversial -- figure among the Senecas dating from the early 1990s, when she emerged as the tribe's leading spokesperson in the fight against casino gambling.
In February 2010, The News reported that she had tried to get a $2 million contract from an architect on the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino project.
Her attorney, Martin E. Seneca Jr., said he believes that Porter is singling out Abrams and her husband for a practice that others in the tribe also are engaged in.
"These were not actually loans. They were buying outright future annuity payments from people, at a discounted rate," Seneca said. "I'm quite certain there are others in the Nation that do this, but they're targeting Susan and her husband."