Special prosecutor to probe allegations of illegal behavior of some Navajo Nation employees

By Felicia Fonseca, AP
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Navajo AG seeks special prosecutor for probe

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The top legal official on the Navajo Nation announced Tuesday he is seeking a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of illegal and unethical behavior by tribal government employees.

Attorney General Louis Denetsosie said the probe will focus on the tribe’s contractual relationship with a Utah-based satellite Internet company, a tribal loan guarantee to a Shiprock, N.M., manufacturing company and discretionary funds doled out by Tribal Council delegates.

The investigation is more broad than the Tribal Council anticipated when it placed Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. on leave and asked Denetsosie to further investigate Shirley’s dealings with OnSat Network Communications and Biochemical Decontamination Systems. A judge later ruled that the council acted outside its authority in putting Shirley on leave.

Shirley’s spokesman, George Hardeen, said the focus of the investigation came as “a pleasant surprise.

“We’ve looked forward to the attorney general asking the court to name a special prosecutor to demonstrate that the hearsay allegations against the president are politically motivated,” he said.

Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler said Denetsosie’s move was another sign of political collusion and the investigation should include discretionary funding awarded to Shirley as well.

Shirley and six others were targeted as part a separate Tribal Council-funded investigation that Butler said revealed serious improprieties and violations within the executive branch.

The reports have not been made public, but an executive summary obtained by The Associated Press said Shirley and his chief of staff appeared to give preferential treatment to OnSat that compromised their independence and impartiality.

Denetsosie later wrote in a memo to the council that there is only “scant” evidence in the reports that Shirley engaged in criminal conduct.

Butler said he is hopeful Shirley will take ownership of any wrongdoing found on his part, and if he’s found innocent, “even better our president can get back to work.”

Dale Mason, a tribal government instructor at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup branch, said the scope of the investigation as announced by Denetsosie shows courage and an assertion of independence by the attorney general.

“It should give the Navajo people a sense of having somebody on their side,” he said.

The Special Division of the Window Rock District Court is expected to name the prosecutor by Jan. 11 and begin work in early February. Denetsosie said the probe can be expanded as discoveries are made.

The Navajo Nation entered into a $1.9 million contract with OnSat in 2001 to provide Internet services to all 110 chapters that ballooned to $32 million by January 2006.

A 2007 tribal audit found that OnSat had overbilled for service and that the tribe didn’t comply with procurement rules or a competitive bidding process in selecting OnSat.

Denetsosie said the tribe’s relationship with OnSat placed its participation in the federal E-rate program in grave jeopardy. The program reimburses between 85 percent and 90 percent of the costs for Internet services to the tribe’s chapter houses, which operate like city governments. The chapter houses lost service through OnSat in 2008 over issues of nonpayment.

BCDS is considered another failed Navajo Nation venture. The tribe invested $300,000 in the company in 2003 and held a 51 percent ownership stake. Denetsosie said a loan guarantee to the company for a planned expansion ultimately cost the tribe $2 million. The loan came from a tribal fund used as collateral for small businesses.

In regard to the discretionary funds, Denetsosie said allegations of improper payments from lawmakers to family members of legislative branch employees have raised serious concerns about whether a few elected officials have betrayed the public’s trust. The payments were detailed in a series of stories by the Navajo Times newspaper.

The tribal auditing office already has initiated a comprehensive review of all discretionary funding by the council and president’s offices.

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