Former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has been cleared of allegations that he acted unethically and illegally in dealing with two businesses on the reservation.
The allegations against Shirley arose in 2009 at a time of bitter contention between the Tribal Council and the two-term president. Shirley was in the midst of an effort to downsize the council from 88 members to 24 when the council heard reports that it said revealed serious improprieties and violations within the executive branch.
The council used the reports, which were not publicly released, to call for an investigation of Shirley and placed him on administrative leave. Prosecutors conducting that investigation announced this week that they found no evidence of misconduct by Shirley.
A tribal judge also signed off on a request by prosecutors to dismiss claims that Shirley breached his fiduciary duty in connection with tribal discretionary funds.
Shirley told The Associated Press that he fully cooperated with the investigation, and he cited Scripture in saying “the truth will set you free.”
Navajo courts ultimately ruled that the council acted outside its authority
Navajo courts ultimately ruled that the council acted outside its authority in placing Shirley on leave, and he was reinstated on the eve of the election in which Navajos voted to significantly downsize the Tribal Council. The investigation into his dealings with a satellite Internet company and a manufacturing business was expanded to include the Tribal Council’s use of a discretionary fund and the management of it.
Prosecutors have alleged that current and former tribal lawmakers diverted tribal money intended for Navajos in need to their own families.
Some of the defendants, including President Ben Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim, settled their cases. About 20 others have been charged criminally in the investigation, while roughly the same number have been cleared of wrongdoing.
Shirley’s exoneration comes during an election year for the Tribal Council and the presidency.
Shirley would not comment on whether he plans to seek the top leadership post. He was set to run for a third consecutive term in 2010 but was barred by term limits.
He told the AP that had the council not called for an investigation into his business dealings, the Navajo people might not have known about the alleged scheme involving discretionary funds.
“A lot of the not-so-good things with our discretionary funds came to light,” he said. “In that way, I think it was good. I think what needs to happen now is to continue working on government reform such that we need to put laws in place (so) that some of the bad things that came about don’t happen again.”
Navajo Nation wants to know more about failed businesses they invested in
Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler, a former council spokesman during Shirley’s second term, said Friday that it’s good Shirley can move past the investigation. But he said he and the council want to know more about what caused the failure of Utah-based OnSat Network Communications Inc. and Shiprock, N.M.-based Biochemical Decontamination Systems.
The Navajo Nation entered into a $1.9 million contract with OnSat in 2001 to provide Internet services to all 110 chapters that ballooned to $32 million by January 2006. The tribe invested $300,000 in BCDS in 2003 and held a 51 percent ownership stake. Tribal officials have said the failed business ultimately cost the tribe $2 million.
“It’s really the Navajo people’s money that we’re messing with,” Butler said. “We need to bring closure to it, and someone needs to be responsible for it.”