Bonuses rescinded for outgoing Navajo officials

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) January 2011

Navajo officials leaving office January 11 won’t receive tribal vehicles as bonuses and furniture at a deeply discounted rate after all.

The Tribal Council’s Budget and Finance Committee rescinded approval of the bonuses Jan. 10th after an attorney advised members that doling out, selling or exchanging tribal property was illegal, said committee Chairman LoRenzo Bates.

The committee was considering allowing officials to purchase the property they were assigned while in office at a discounted rate but found out that also wasn’t allowed under the law, Bates said.

“I feel good now that there’s no question in the next administration that you can’t do this unless the law is changed that allows for it,” he said.

Tribal President Joe Shirley Jr., Vice President Ben Shelly, council Speaker Lawrence Morgan and executive branch chief of staff Patrick Sandoval were to have benefited from the bonuses. All of them left their positions Jan. 11 as a new administration is sworn in.

The legislative branch had defended giving tribal vehicles as bonuses and selling furniture as a matter of long-standing tradition and custom in showing appreciation to tribal officials. Some said tribal property that contains personal information or furniture and vehicles that have been used by one person for years should be passed on to that person.

The incoming president, vice president and speaker are able to furnish their homes provided by the tribe.

But questions arose regarding the legality of the bonuses and property purchases, and some Navajos saying the property should go to those truly in need.

Diana DeChilly of Fort Defiance said she has been giving a ride to a woman who works in Window Rock, who she found hitchhiking on a cold morning. DeChilly said the woman’s husband walks her down an unpaved road while she seeks a ride and is waiting for her in the same spot when she returns.

“If anyone needs a freebie car, it is this woman and her family,” she said.

Navajo lawmaker Lorenzo Curley objected to the bonuses when the committee took up the issue at meeting earlier in January. He said gifts are allowed under tribal law but have limitations. He said he didn’t see anything in the law that showed giving bonuses to public officials would be allowed.

“To me, it’s wrong; it’s not right,” he said.

Shelly, Morgan, Sandoval and Shirley were to receive the sport utility vehicles they were assigned during their terms as bonuses, with Shirley also receiving a van and a pickup truck. The officials were to report the full market value on their taxes.

Shelly’s, Morgan’s and Shirley’s tribal-issued property was assessed at thousands of dollars, then offered to them at 10 percent of the total cost. Among the property was furniture, electronics and exercise equipment.

Bates said the committee members didn’t receive proper guidance on the legality of the bonuses or the property purchases during the early January meeting. The committee rescinded those approvals, as well as an option for lawmakers to purchase their laptops and printers for $50 each.

Shelly issued a statement last week saying that he would return everything that was offered to him.

“The Navajo people have entrusted me with certain responsibilities,” he said. “I will take office as president. I will uphold my office with honesty, integrity, and accountability to the Navajo people.”