Navajo Nation suspends president

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – With a major investigation of tribal leadership ongoing, the Navajo Nation Council has voted to suspend long-time President Joe Shirley Jr.

The action came Oct. 26 via a majority vote of 48-22. Before the vote, the council deliberated on investigative reports focused on the leadership’s involvement in controversial business matters known as OnSat and BCDS.

OnSat is a satellite service provider, which has been shown in an audit to have overbilled the tribe.

BCDS, Bio Chemical Decontamination Systems, is a joint venture corporation of the tribe focused on manufacturing.

A special review of the BCDS deal by the Navajo Nation Office of the Auditor General previously found that many of those involved failed to exercise due diligence before investing in the company.

A statement from the council said Shirley would be suspended as investigations are carried out to determine if prosecution of “ethical, civil and criminal charges by the Navajo Nation through a special prosecutor” will be necessary.

The statement said the investigative reports “provide reasonable grounds that certain Navajo Nation officials and employees may have seriously breached their fiduciary trust to the Navajo people.”

Complete details of the reports have not been released publicly, but, according to the council’s statement, the reports allege wrongdoing by the president and key members of his staff within the executive branch of the tribe.

Shirley’s suspension amounts to administrative leave with pay, the council said, adding that the action would allow law enforcement authorities access to further information within the Office of the President and Vice President without interference.

The investigative reports will now be referred to the Office of the Navajo Attorney General for application to the Special Division of the Window Rock District Court to hire a special prosecutor. The attorney general has up to 60 days to decide whether to ask for a special prosecutor.

Navajo Nation rules say the council can place the president on leave in circumstances where there are reasonable grounds to believe that such official has seriously breached his or her fiduciary trust to tribal citizens.

Shirley, a tribal leader for more than four decades, has been vocal in expressing his disappointment regarding the suspension.

In a statement from the president’s office released after the action, Shirley said he believed the council was retaliating against him.

“It appears irrefutable that the action is in retaliation for efforts to seek an initiative election to reduce the council from 88 to 24 delegates, and to allow the president line item veto authority.”

He had spent much of the year pushing for the reform initiatives to go before the voters, which is set to happen in December.

Shirley said, too, he wanted to know specific allegations against him. The Navajo Times has reported that his office is looking into legal options.

The council quickly disputed Shirley’s accounts, saying in a press release issued Oct. 27 that the decision had “absolutely nothing to do with the two initiatives he and his office are pushing.”

The release said the OnSat and BCDS investigative reports were requested as early as September 2007.

“Despite the criticism being received from the Office of the President, the tribal government is operating smoothly and there are no disruptions in services,” said the release.

“Business will continue as usual. The council is urging the public to respect the process and allow the investigations to run its full course in a proper fashion.”

Vice President Ben Shelly has been named to take over all presidential duties, pending the investigation.