Obama taps top Native American fundraiser for U.N. human rights post

June 12, 2013

A Washington lawyer who played a pivotal role in raising record donations from Native American tribes for President Obama’s reelection was nominated this week to a top diplomatic post, underscoring the strong ties between Indian country and the White House.

Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation who brought in more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign, was named by Obama to serve as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, a job that carries the rank of ambassador.

“I couldn’t be prouder to have a citizen rise to that level of honor,” said Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

If confirmed by the Senate, Harper would replace Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, a respected figure in the human rights community whose name was floated last year as a possible successor to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

Donahoe, a former academic who specialized in international law, served as the first U.S. representative on the council, which was established in 2006 in an effort to strengthen the United Nations’ engagement on human rights issues.

Harper did not return requests for comment. A White House spokesman said he would not discuss the nomination prior to his confirmation hearing.

Like his predecessors, Obama has rewarded many top supporters with coveted ambassadorships and other postings, a practice that campaign finance watchdogs say exposes the influence of money on the system.

“It immediately raises questions about what is really at work here — is it the qualifications of the nominee, or is it the amount of money that the nominee was able to raise?” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government transparency. “Even for people who may be qualified, it raises doubts. It causes the average person to think, ‘What is the price of admission?’ ”

Harper has been active in human rights and civil rights organizations and served as a delegate to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about a nominee’s background.

Several leading human rights advocates said they were not familiar with Harper before his nomination. But some expressed hopefulness that his work representing Native American tribes would help prepare him to tackle inequities on a global stage.

“There’s obviously a learning curve there,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “The most important thing is a readiness to take up these issues in a principled and credible manner.”

Harper’s nomination comes after Indian tribes engaged in last year’s election at an unprecedented level, primarily to Obama’s benefit. Tribes — which are not governed by the same caps on aggregate federal donations as individuals — gave more than $3 million to his reelection, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign filings.

The amount is significantly more than tribal donations to past presidential candidates. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney raised about $500,000 from tribes in the 2012 campaign.

In the first year of Obama’s administration, the federal government agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle a class-action suit filed in 1996 by Native Americans alleging that the United States had mismanaged Indian trust accounts for more than a century.

Harper was one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs in that case. His firm, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, and two solo practitioners have earned nearly $86 million in attorneys’ fees so far, according to court documents.

Harper has served as a key liaison between Obama and Indian tribes dating back to the 2008 campaign, and he helped host two major fundraisers and a convention event last year.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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