Navajo Monster Slayers: a tribe struggles to fight corruption

  • Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, who has relied on traditional Navajo philosophy in overturning Navajo Nation Council laws.

    Diego James Robles
  • Navajo Council watchdogs Norman Patrick Brown, left, and Ed Becenti, outside the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, Arizona.

    Diego James Robles
  • Scenes from the mural that covers the wall of the Navajo Council Chamber.

    Diego James Robles
  • Most of the plush chairs in the Navajo Council Chamber are empty, since a 2009 ballot initiative reduced the number of delegates from 88 to 24.

    Diego James Robles
  • Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald in early 1989, just weeks before he was suspended in the face of federal and tribal charges for various offenses. He later served eight years in federal prison.

    Associated press
  • Houses in the Two Grey Hills area of the Navajo Reservation, represented by Council Delegate David Tom.

    Diego James Robles
  • Council Delegate David Tom, shown here at the Navajo Tribal Council meeting in July. Tom has been charged with diverting nearly $280,000 of tribal funds to himself and his family.

    Diego James Robles
  • Council Delegate Russell Begaye, in Shiprock, which was a vibrant commercial center when he was growing up there. Now, he says, people have to leave the reservation to shop.

    Diego James Robles
  • Former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley was targeted by a prosecutor's lawsuit in July, which alleged that he failed to carry out his fiduciary duty to the tribe.

    U.S. House of Representatives
  • Current President Ben Shelly

  • Vice President Rex Lee Jim was elected last November, despite being under investigation for theft of tribal funds. He later settled and repaid funds to the tribe.

    Rex Lee for Navajo Nation President
  • An officer stands guard as Special Prosecuter Alan Balaran (blue shirt) and investigators from the tribal attorney general's office conduct a search-and-seizure warrant in May at the Office of the Management and Budget and Controller in Window Rock.

    Leigh T. Jimmie, Navajo Times

Page 4

Economics drive both the alleged corruption and the push for reform. Most of the 300,000 Navajos live on the reservation, and delegates' constituents are mostly poor: Whereas delegates' annual salaries are a modest $25,000, plus per diem perks for travel to Window Rock and various committee meetings, the average per capita income for Navajos is abysmally low (about $7,000). More than 40 percent live below the poverty line, and over 18,000 households lack basic infrastructure such as electricity.

Reservation unemployment stands, officially, at just over 50 percent, according to the Navajo Nation. The actual unemployment rate, as the tribal Division of Economic Development (DED) has acknowledged, is much higher: over 70 percent. A person must be actively looking for a job to be included in the labor force; if you're not looking -- as is the case with many on the reservation, since there are no jobs -- you're not considered unemployed. According to the DED's 2009-'10 status report, the service sector, which includes schools, hospitals and motels, was the largest employer, with 15,215 jobs, about 49 percent of the Navajo labor force. The government employed 8,214 people, or 26.6 percent. There were only a few hundred jobs in basic industries like manufacturing and agriculture.

Delegates don't campaign for office as Republicans or Democrats. Russell Begaye, a newly elected delegate from the Shiprock area, told me that what mattered was "family and clan connections and serving the people." A successful delegate needs to know how to work the system. "It's hard to defeat an incumbent. You control the resources and can dole them out. If you can help somebody, they remember it a long time. So you can actually buy votes in a way." This may explain why David Tom was re-elected last November, after he was indicted. And it may also help explain why Begaye, who had never before run for office, won.

Begaye was born and raised in Shiprock, N.M., hauling water and using horses to plow his family's farm. He left the reservation for college, graduated from UCLA, and worked his way up in the building industry, founding his own firm in Atlanta. He returned in 2007, to find a reservation changed in all the wrong ways. Shiprock used to be a viable commercial center near Farmington, but now it, like the rest of the reservation, is mired in hard times.

"When I was growing up, we had a First National Bank in Shiprock. We had several sit-down restaurants, two hotels; it was a thriving community," Begaye said. Now, people have to leave the reservation to shop. "There's just an outflow of revenue from Shiprock into surrounding towns."

Only around 36 percent of all Navajo monies are spent on the reservation, according to a recent study. Businesses avoid the reservation, in part because of bureaucratic red tape. In a speech to the Navajo Nation Council, Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, observed that "it takes three to five years to get the governmental approvals necessary to open a dry-cleaning shop in Window Rock. The same approvals can be obtained in Flagstaff (Ariz.) in just three days. Now, why on earth is this tolerated? What kind of business climate is that?" McCain made the criticism in 1996, but it is telling that the Navajo Nation's 2009-'10 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Report continues to cite it.

Begaye is a businessman, and it irked him that favors were handed out on a piecemeal basis while overall development foundered. He campaigned on "creating opportunity." Although an unknown, he won, he said, by buying an hour of radio time on the Navajo Nation's KTNN and inviting young Navajos to come talk about success. "A 19-year-old told us about starting his own business; a young girl had got her M.D. I just lined 'em up and let them tell their stories."

Many tribes struggle with lousy economies and flawed political systems that were established by the federal government, of course. But Begaye studied economic success stories, especially the Mississippi Band of the Choctaws, whose visionary leaders made constitutional reforms in the 1970s, strengthening the executive branch and making other changes that helped the tribe become an economic powerhouse. "The Choctaws went from being one of the state's poorest communities to being a big employer. They brought in industry of all kinds. So now I'm in Shiprock, and I'm thinking, 'I've seen it and I know it's possible.' "

Special prosecutor Balaran continued to dig into President Shirley's role in doling out discretionary funds, as well as his involvement in two companies with tribal contracts, OnSat and Biochemical Decontamination Systems (BCDS), but was hampered by Shirley's refusal to release some documents. BCDS had planned to build a manufacturing plant on the reservation, and the tribe was the only stockholder that contributed capital; the company defaulted on loans and left the tribe saddled with debts of more than $4.7 million. OnSat was one of Shirley's pet projects, hired to install public Internet access at all chapterhouses and emergency response agencies. A 2007 tribal audit found the company overcharged the tribe by more than $600,000.

The Navajo Nation on the whole has a poor record backing enterprises. The board members of its economic development agencies often lack experience and professional business credentials. Shoddy business plans and a lack of due diligence contribute to problems, the Navajo auditor general has said, adding that even a basic Internet search for information on BCDS head Hak Ghun -- aka Hak Soo Dickenson -- would have discovered that he was one of seven people charged in federal court in New York with defrauding investors out of $11 million in 1984.

President Shirley's vice president, Ben Shelly, was also caught in Balaran's net -- charged with the theft of $8,850 when he was a council delegate. Yet even while Shelly was under that cloud, last November, Navajo voters elected him as the new tribal president. They also elected former delegate Rex Lee Jim, charged with conspiracy and the theft of $3,200, as the new vice president. A kind of gender bias might help explain those results: Shelly ran against a woman, Lynda Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator. Though Navajo society is matrilineal and Shelly himself had argued that leadership ability, not gender, is important, there's a strong prejudice against women being in charge. During the campaign, several traditional Navajos were quoted in the press, blaming Lovejoy's presidential bid for upsetting nature and causing a tornado.

Just before their inauguration in January, Shelly and Jim settled the charges against them, agreeing to repay the money and work with Balaran to enact reforms. Repeated inquiries, asking President Shelly's office to provide specifics about the promised reforms, were never answered.

In my research for this story, I did my best to avoid the stable of outside experts who are often quoted about the need to reform many tribes' governments. During interviews in Window Rock, Navajos invariably said, "You need to talk to Ray" to understand what's happening. Ray Austin was a Navajo Nation Supreme Court justice for 16 years, and is now a professor in the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona law school. He's been at the forefront in developing tribal courts and tribal law. Due to his severe hearing loss, he and I conversed by email.

Some Navajos defend the delegates' allegedly criminal actions by saying they were honoring the doctrines of hózhó as well as k'é (peacefulness and solidarity) and k'éí (kinship). Essentially, the money was doled out to keep things harmonious. Austin, a longtime advocate of using foundational doctrines to guide modern self-governance, would have none of it. "There is nothing wrong with helping kin and clan relatives in time of need," he said. "A person can give money (or things of value) to assist kin and clan relatives, but the money given is personally owned, not money that comes from the public treasury. ... The delegates' conduct, if true, is corruption."

The tribe is experiencing the "growing pains of a nascent government," Austin wrote, adding that the current scandals would generate new laws and policies that would prevent similar troubles in the future. Hózhó is still at work, then, just not in the way the delegates' defenders contend.

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