Navajo president forced to resign

 

Window Rock, Ariz. - Facing up to 50 criminal charges, Navajo President Albert Hale resigned from office Feb. 19. "I could fight this," he said, "but I don't want to subject my people, especially my mother and children, to this."

By resigning, Hale avoided prosecution for misusing tribal money. During his parting address to people gathered outside Navajo Nation Council chambers, Hale said he was told he would be charged with up to 50 criminal counts if he did not voluntarily leave office.

Special prosecutor for the tribe, Fred Chris Smith, and Hale's attorney, Henry S. Howe, presented a stipulated agreement to the tribe's ethics committee, which accepted Hale's resignation. The agreement states that President Hale accepted gifts from corporations doing business with the tribe, including Xerox and Conoco.

The agreement also states that Hale and Thomas Atcitty, tribal vice president, accepted gifts at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago from Navajo political appointees and some employees of the tribe. In addition, it is stipulated that Hale used a credit card and tribal vehicles for personal use.

Atcitty, who was sworn in Feb. 19 as acting president, is still under criminal investigation. Hale urged the ethics committee to drop its investigation of Atcitty by the special prosecutor and his staff, who he called "bilagannas' who rob the tribe of its leaders. Hale supporters in the room cheered this sentiment. Bilagannas is Navajo for "white people." The tribe employs several non-Indians, however, including Hale's press secretary.

Although Hale told the ethics committtee, "I'm sorry for my wrongdoing," he also said he believed he did nothing wrong and that others before him had done the same thing. Hale said his resignation avoids the political turmoil that occurred when Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald was ousted in 1989.

Under the banner headline "HALE RESIGNS" Feb. 19, the tribally owned newspaper, the Navajo Times, printed the stipulated agreement in full, publishing some 17,500 copies in time for it to hit newstands as Hale spoke to the tribe's ethics committee.

Just a few days earlier the paper's staff had been shaken by Hale's attempt to remove editor Tom Arviso, who has not been shy about printing controversial political stories involving Hale. One reported that Hale's former wife, Regina Pinto-Hale, told the tribal council that her husband had an affair with his then-press officer Valerie Taliman. The Times also published photos of the two on an outing.

On Feb. 13, Ferdinand Notah, a Hale appointee who is the tribe's director of economic development, summoned Arviso and told him he was being "demoted."

The Navajo Nation Council, however, told Notah he could not demote Arviso. Notah then "suspended" Arviso from his job. He said it was a business decision and had nothing to do with politics.

Arviso countered: "This is a bold attempt by Hale and his administration to control how this news is covered in the Navajo Times." With Hale's resignation, both attempts at censorship are apparently moot. Arviso remains the editor and Notah says Arviso was never actually demoted or suspended; there was a misunderstanding.

On Feb. 23, said Eugene Tapahe, the paper's managing editor, morale at the paper was high and people were working hard, "perhaps as a result of everyone thinking they were about to be fired."

Tapahe said that although former president Hale has never admitted guilt in a forthright way, the story remains: "He did wrong and he got caught. It's our job to print the news."

Brenda Norell writes in Navajo, New Mexico. Editor Betsy Marston contributed to this report.

You can ...

* Get a copy of the Feb. 19 edition of the Navajo Times, which costs $1 and includes postage, by calling the paper's circulation department at 520/871-6642.

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