Indianz.Com > News > NAFOA in transition with departure of executive director
Richard "Rico" Frias
Richard “Rico” Frias, then serving as executive director of NAFOA, speaks at the podium during the organization’s 41st annual conference in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
NAFOA in transition with departure of executive director
Experienced tribal leader Susan Masten tapped for interim position
Friday, June 2, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The oldest and largest finance organization in Indian Country is undergoing change with the exit of its executive director, who was on the job for less than two years.

In a news release on Thursday, NAFOA announced a nationwide search for a new director. Missing was any mention of Richard “Rico” Frias, who had joined the organization in July 2021, or any details about his departure.

“We’d like to respect Rico Frias’ privacy regarding his departure from NAFOA,” a spokesperson for the organization told Indianz.Com, after being asked about the circumstances of the announcement.

But replacing Frias, as least for now, is an experienced and well-known tribal leader. Susan Masten, a former chairperson of the Yurok Tribe and a former president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), is serving as “interim” executive director, NAFOA said.

“Her years of leadership experience and working knowledge of Indian Country will greatly benefit the organization,” said NAFOA First Vice President VaRene Martin, a citizen of the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town.

Tribal law and policy experts in the nation’s capital welcomed Masten’s arrival at NAFOA — even if only on a temporary basis.

“Sue Masten’s the greatest,” one tribal advocate told Indianz.Com, referring to her decades of work on sovereignty, economic development and other key issues. The person spoke out of anonymity as to not overshadow the official announcement from the leadership at NAFOA.

“They oughta just keep her on,” the same person said.

Frias did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. But three people who have had dealings with NAFOA in recent weeks spoke of palpable tensions between the former executive and the board of directors, which consists of tribal leaders from across Indian Country.

According to one person who attended a meeting with NAFOA, Frias complained that he “couldn’t really get anything done” at the organization, despite serving as executive director. He described a lengthy process to accomplish his goals, the person said.

Another individual said Frias had run into difficulties after suggesting ways to cut back on travel-related expenses at NAFOA. The idea was immediately rejected as being out of line with the organization’s mission to serve tribes across the nation, according to this tribal advocate.

The third person said tensions between Frias and the board appeared to be coming to a head during NAFOA’s recent conference in D.C. More than 800 tribal leaders and finance professionals attended the meeting, which took place April 23-25 and focused on economic development, finance, taxation, employment and other issues of significance.

Sure enough, in the weeks following the otherwise productive event, Frias and the board ended up parting ways. Staff were informed as early as May 22 or May 23 that Frias was going to be leaving the organization, according to a person familiar with the discussions. NAFOA’s board plans to announce more details about the nationwide search for an executive director in the near future.

“The Board of Directors is responsible for recruiting and hiring a permanent executive director,” the NAFOA spokesperson said. “An announcement about the position and its responsibilities will be made public in the coming months on our website.”

Masten celebrated her first official day on the job as interim executive director on Thursday. Prior to that, she had already addressed NAFOA staff in a virtual meeting.

“I am honored to be entrusted by the Board of Directors with this critically important position,” Masten said in NAFOA’s announcement.

“I look forward to working with the NAFOA Board, Member Tribes, the staff, and our federal and corporate partners to ensure that we meet today’s challenges and take advantage of the opportunities to secure economic and financial success for all of Indian Country,” said Masten.

In addition to working on behalf of her tribe and NCAI, which is the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States, Masten has served as vice chairperson of the Intertribal Monitoring Association on Indian Trust Funds, as chair of the National Trust Reform Task Force, as chair of the Board of Directors of the Indian Law Resource Center and as vice president of the National American Indian Enterprise Development Center, another economic development organization.

At home in northern California, Masten has held numerous leadership roles, including as a member of the Humboldt County Planning Commissioner and as president of the Klamath Chamber of Commerce — a nod to her status as a local business owner. She also served on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors for an appointed term.

“We are confident she will lead NAFOA in a strong and sustainable direction,” First Vice President Martin said of Masten.

NAFOA was founded as the Native American Finance Officers Association in 1982. The organization boasts an all-women board of leadership — in addition to Martin, Cristina Danforth of the Oneida Nation serves as president and Celina Phair of the Lummi Nation as 1st and 2nd vice presidents, respectively.

Also serving on the board is Amy Minnear of the Pechanga Band of Indians, who took on the position of treasurer during NAFOA’s meeting in April. Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is the organization’s secretary.

NAFOA currently counts more than 150 tribal governments as members. The organization grew in member tribes following the arrival of Frias almost two years ago.

NAFOA’s next major event is its fall finance and tribal economies conference. The meeting is taking place October 2-3 at the Gila River Indian Community, near Phoenix, Arizona.

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NAFOA opens annual economic development conference in nation’s capital (April 24, 2023)
NAFOA announces Richard ‘Rico’ Frias as new executive director (July 20, 2021)