Navajo Department of Justice: Ranch program under investigation

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) July 2010

An investigation into allegations of illegal and unethical behavior by Navajo Nation government employees has been expanded to include the tribal ranch program, a Navajo justice official said.

The Navajo Nation leases more than two dozen tribal ranches on about 1.5 million acres that are divided into range units, most of which lie in New Mexico. Henry Howe, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, said the department petitioned a special panel of judges to add the tribal ranch program to the investigation after allegations of improprieties in awarding ranch leases surfaced. “We received sufficient credible evidence that convinced the attorney general that further investigation was warranted,” he said.

A special investigator already is looking into the tribe’s contractual relationship with a Utah-based satellite Internet company, a tribal loan guarantee to a Shiprock, N.M., manufacturing company and discretionary funding doled out by Tribal Council delegates.

Tribal agriculture director Leo Watchman Jr., whose department oversees the ranch program, said improprieties were made known in a 2009 audit of the tribal ranch program. He said the department is working to address the audit findings and would fully cooperate with the special prosecutor.

“What we’re trying to get back to us what is within the Navajo Nation code when it comes to leasing,” Watchman, who took over the department in May 2009, said Friday.

The audit found that the program had expenditures of nearly $2.9 million between fiscal year 2005 and 2009, and a deficit of nearly $630,000 in the same time period. That was due in part to poor record keeping, the non-collection of fees, adjustment of fees and ranches left vacant, according to the audit.

The ranch program is supposed to be self-sustaining. Only enrolled Navajos are eligible to be awarded leases but at least one non-Navajo held a lease on one of the ranches.

The audit further found that the lease process doesn’t ensure that lessees are held to the same requirements and that applicants are evaluated on the same criteria. The inconsistencies promote favoritism in awarding leases, the audit said.

Auditors recommended a competitive bidding process to ensure fairness and an ability to generate the highest revenue.

The tribe switched over to the competitive bidding process earlier this year, which some ranchers contend unfairly punishes those who have maintained the land for generations. Justin Yazzie Jr. of Farmington, N.M., is one of them.

Yazzie, a 56-year-old fifth generation rancher, was outbid in an effort to continue grazing livestock on the eastern side of the reservation. He said he would welcome an investigation of the program “with open arms.”

He questioned whether political favors were granted under the new and old system of awarding and maintaining leases, whether anyone who successfully bid had a conflict of interest and whether the leases held by longtime ranchers were wrongfully terminated.

“Us old-time ranchers took it seriously, (and) we’re the ones who are getting blamed for their mismanagement,” he said. “So we’re thrown into this big pot along with everyone else to this bid process. We’re being punished for their actions.”

A longtime ranch manager who Watchman said had violated personnel policies and abused his position resigned earlier this year. Other allegations against the former manager could not be substantiated, he said, but “the special prosecutor may conclude something beyond that.”