Navajo president appoints head of gambling enterprise 4-17-07

Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) - Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. has appointed a chief executive to head the tribe's gambling enterprise - a move that should fast-track development of casinos on the country's largest Indian reservation.

Robert Winter, a New Jersey lawyer who works with several tribes on resort development projects and casino management, will oversee the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise Board once confirmed by the tribal council's Economic Development Committee.

``I am certain that when its members review his credentials, they will be as impressed with him as I am,'' Shirley told delegates in Window Rock, Ariz., on Monday as they met for the first day of their spring session.

Voters approved gambling on the reservation in 2001, and the tribal council approved a central board last September to oversee and manage casinos built on Navajo land.

Delegate Ervin Keeswood, whose chapter of Tse' Daa' Kaan has the tribe's only local gaming board, commended Shirley for ``moving forward on matters of importance.''

Winter's appointment ``brings added value to this whole initiative of bringing gaming to Navajo,'' Keeswood said.

Winter, reached by telephone Monday, said the Navajo Nation asked him to help speed up the Church Rock operation and help in getting other potential facilities running.

``I'm looking forward to working with the nation to increase its potential to have fair and profitable gaming for its people,'' he said.

Winter was chosen from among three finalists who were interviewed for the post. Terms of his contract should be available within the next two weeks, Shirley said.

Winter served as vice president and general counsel for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut from 1993-98. He negotiated contracts for the multi-million-dollar construction of that tribe's casino resort.

From 1989-93, Winter was assistant attorney general in New Jersey and oversaw the investigation and prosecution of all casino-related crimes in the state.

On the Navajo Nation, he will be the one to sign off on a business site lease for the tribe's proposed Church Rock casino near Gallup - the first of six planned for the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

The casinos could bring in annual revenues of about $100 million, Shirley has said.

``This economic priority will help build a foundation of real economic development and self-sufficiency, and will help lead us from a condition of dependency on outside entities to one of independence and true sovereignty,'' Shirley said.

A temporary structure should go up near Church Rock within five months, Shirley said. The 27,000-square-foot building will have 350 slot machines, table games, entertainment and a small cafe.

The tribe plans to build a permanent casino near Church Rock - about a mile from the temporary site.

LoRenzo Bates, one of 48 delegates who signed a memo last month pressing Shirley to update the council on casino development plans, raised concern about the Church Rock site, saying it could face too much competition from other casinos west of Albuquerque.

The tribal council is expected to consider a revenue-sharing plan this week between the Nahata Dzill chapter in Arizona and the Navajo Nation for a casino there. Shirley has named the area as one of six potential sites.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is leasing 275 slot machines from Arizona's Gila River Indian Community. The one-year lease should generate $1.5 million for the Navajo Nation, Shirley said.