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Navajo lawmakers place tribal president on leave

The Navajo Nation Council on Oct. 26 placed the tribe’s president on administrative leave, pending an investigation into allegations of ethical, civil or criminal involvement with two companies that operated on the reservation.

The Tribal Council voted 48-22 in favor of the measure during a special session in Window Rock, Ariz. The vote to place Joe Shirley Jr. on leave comes a week after council delegates met in closed session and discussed alleged legal violations arising from tribal contracts with Utah-based OnSat Network Communications Inc. and Shiprock, N.M.-based Biochemical Decontamination Systems.

Shirley says the council has yet to make clear what the allegations against him are.

Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler released a statement urging the public to respect the process and allow the investigation to run its course. He has said that reports compiled by investigators hired by the council reveal serious impropriety and violations within the executive branch. The reports were presented to the council last week but have not been made public.

Butler said authorities now will be allowed to access information from Shirley’s office and prevent him from obstructing or interfering with an investigation and possible prosecution.
The measure originally included tribal Vice President Ben Shelly, but delegates amended it to exclude him.

Six others besides Shirley are targeted as part of the investigation, including his chief of staff and the directors of the tribe’s divisions of economic development, community development and public safety. Questions were referred Shirley’s spokesman, George Hardeen.

Hardeen said neither Shirley nor the others have seen the reports or had an opportunity to answer to the allegations.

Shirley added he has nothing to hide and believes he’ll be exonerated. “All that’s out there is hearsay,” he said. “Something is wrong with this process.”

The council forwarded the allegations to tribal Attorney General Louis Denetsosie, who will consider whether to recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor to review the case. Denetsosie has 60 days to make the recommendation.

Shirley’s leave isn’t the first time the Tribal Council has taken action against the tribe’s top elected official. Most notably, the council ousted former Chairman Peter MacDonald in the late 1980s because of a corruption scandal.

Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he believes the Tribal Council is simply retaliating against Shirley for leading an effort to reduce the council’s size by more than half. Navajos are set to vote on the reduction and whether to give the president line-item veto authority in December.
Tsosie said no strong evidence exists to back up allegations against Shirley, the first Navajo leader to serve back-to-back terms since 1982.

“It’s the reverse of the common understanding of presumption of innocence,” he said.
Delegate Lorenzo Curley said he doesn’t believe Shirley will be charged criminally but said the reports made to the council suggested the president violated ethics and procurement laws. He said the case against Shirley regarding OnSat appears stronger than that with Biochemical Decontamination Systems.

OnSat has provided satellite Internet services on the Navajo Nation, while BCDS was created to seek large federal government contracts for the sale of metal fabrication products.

A 2007 tribal audit of OnSat found the company overbilled for services and the tribe didn’t comply with procurement rules or a competitive bidding process in selecting OnSat. The company no longer provides Internet services to tribal communities or executive offices.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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