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Federal government looking into Hawaii trip by Navajo officials

Farmington, New Mexico (AP) 11-07

The U.S. Department of Interior is looking into whether federal money was inappropriately spent to send Navajo Nation representatives to an education conference in Hawaii.

The Inspector General is responding to a Nov. 16 letter from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who asked whether federal dollars were misappropriated or misused, said a spokesman for Inspector General Earl Devaney.

“We do acknowledge receipt of the letter and we’ve begun a preliminary look into the matter,” the spokesman told the Farmington Daily Times. The total number of Navajos attending has come under scrutiny after the Daily Times reported Nov. 3 that 362 tribal members preregistered for the National Indian Education Association conference last month in Honolulu.

Lillian Sparks, executive director of NIEA, has said that figure could include enrolled members of the tribe from anywhere across the United States, who do not live on the reservation and are not representatives of tribal government.

Navajo officials confirmed they sent 50 representatives of the Navajo Nation government, including 15 Head Start workers, at a cost of more than $110,000.

Supporters have argued that those attending were bringing back new ideas and methods to teach American Indian students. Critics contend fewer representatives could have gone, saving money needed by the schools.

The Navajo Head Start program, which last year had its funding temporarily revoked after a scathing report on problems that included inadequate financial controls, spent more than $35,000 on its conference representatives.

Lamont Yazzie, interim director of the program, told The Associated Press he wanted his staff to be well-represented – in part to address some of the program’s past deficiencies.

He said approval to send 15 people was granted only after he was assured that trouble areas were being addressed. He also said the money to send them came from funds for staff development and training.

The tribe’s travel list included at least 18 delegates from the Navajo Nation’s 88-member council, the Navajo president and his wife and numerous school board officials.

Domenici’s letter asked Devaney’s office to review the issue.

“If federal dollars were misappropriated or misused in any way related to this conference in Hawaii, then appropriate action must be taken,” he wrote.

The Inspector General’s Office is responsible for preventing and detecting fraud and abuse. A 1978 law allows it to demand access to records, documents and other evidence and to conduct audits or criminal investigations based on its findings.

The Daily Times said it has made repeated phone calls to tribal officials and has filed at least 150 Freedom of Information requests, most of them within the past two weeks, seeking to confirm the number of Navajo attendees at the conference and the origin of the funds used.

Information from: The Daily Times