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Senator calls for inquiry into funds spent for Hawaii conference

Farmington, New Mexico (AP) 11-07

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici is calling for a federal inquiry into whether federal funds were misappropriated or misused for an American Indian education conference in Hawaii.

If so, the New Mexico Republican said action needs to be taken.

More than 360 people representing the Navajo Nation preregistered for the four-day conference held during October in Honolulu. The preregistration fee for the event, hosted by the National Indian Education Association, was $400 per person. It’s not clear how many people who preregistered represented Navajo government, public school districts on the Navajo Nation or other groups.

Although some of the travelers might have paid their own expense, some used tribal funds or federal funds to pay for the trip, the Daily Times reported during November.

The Central Consolidated school district sent eight people to the convention at a cost of about $15,000. Interim superintendent Charles Hayes said he considers the money well spent.

“I am sorry we couldn’t send more,” he said. “I’d do it again.”

The Navajo Nation’s legislative branch sent 18 delegates. Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan has said it’s not unusual for tribal lawmakers to travel on behalf of the sovereign nation.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. was invited to speak at the conference and took his wife and an assistant with him, the president’s spokesman, George Hardeen, has said.

The Daily Times has criticized the Navajo Nation government and school districts on its opinion pages for the number of representatives sent, claiming that fewer representatives could have brought home the lessons they learned and shared them with others.

Central Consolidated school board member Hoskie Benally Jr. said he views the news coverage as deliberately inflammatory.

“I see that the motive of the newspaper is to plant the thought in the mind of the community people that something may illegally be happening, and that’s not fair,” he said.

Domenici said he personally called Shirley to discuss the matter and to request that the Navajo Nation make all information about the trip a matter of public record.

“I am concerned that those who represent the Navajo people have not accounted for this trip,” Domenici told the newspaper.

In a letter to Inspector General Earl Devancy of the Department of Interior, Domenici asked that the federal office review the trip taken by Navajo representatives and “take appropriate action in accordance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.”

“It is important that The Daily Times be held accountable for their reporting and that the Navajo Nation also be held accountable for their actions,” he said.