Stiffed by the speaker?
Architect says speaker will not pay him for work on proposed legislative building
By Marley Shebala
T he architect who designed the proposed Lawrence T. Morgan Legislature Building wants to be paid.
Will Graven, owner of North American Building & Development-Dine in Scottsdale, Ariz., said Wednesday that he and his staff produced about $250,000 worth of work at the behest of Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan (Iyanbito/Pinedale).
But then Graven was told the agreement he and Morgan had signed was invalid.
"We acted in good faith," Graven said, producing copies of architectural drawings for the proposed legislative complex that he said were done between March and September of 2007.
The drawings were based on a sketch by Morgan that showed a rooftop swimming pool, helicopter landing pad and parking garage on the proposed building.
Morgan also supplied the name for it, Graven said. The speaker first approached him on the project in February 2007, he said.
Among the documents Graven provided to the Navajo Times to substantiate his claims was a June 18, 2008, letter of intent directing him to undertake the project. The letter was drafted by Judith Dworkin, a private attorney acting as Morgan's consultant, and bears the signatures of Morgan and Graven.
A June 17, 2007, photo shows Morgan and Graven shaking hands in the Green Room of the Quality Inn and Restaurant in Window Rock, and commemorates their signing of the letter of intent, Graven said.
In the letter, Morgan states to Graven that the letter "will evidence our mutual good faith intent and legally binding obligation" to develop a master lease, to be followed within 150 days by a build-to-suit lease/sublease for the legislative complex and land for Graven to sign. Then he would construct the legislative complex, the letter said.
Morgan also stated that an initial $500,000 would be placed into an "Independent Operating Account," which would be used for payment of work by Graven for the design and construction of the legislative complex.
Other records produced by Graven showed that Dworkin, a lawyer with Sacks Tierney in Scottsdale, was working on the master lease and build-to-suit lease/sublease in August 2007.
In October 2007, however, Morgan told him their letter of intent was "not valid and to go away," Graven said.
Graven said that after a year of trying to collect payment for the work done, which he estimated as being worth $250,000, he sent Morgan a letter dated Sept. 4 in which he offers to settle for $50,000.
He said that he and Morgan then discussed the letter and that the speaker was willing to pay him $50,000, but that Morgan's chief of staff, James Davis, advised against it.
Graven said Davis called him "a bum" and "a shyster" who had "conned the nation into designing and constructing the legislative complex."
Graven also said that when he told Davis he was going to the Navajo Times with his story, Davis responded, "If you do that you'll never get paid and I'll make sure you never get another job on the Navajo Reservation."
On Tuesday, Davis denied Graven's accusation that he threatened him. "I would never say anything like that to him," Davis said.
In addition to determining that the letter of intent was invalid, the tribal officials developed doubts about Graven's business practices, based on legal problems related to his previous projects, Davis said.
Davis gave the Times a copy of an Oct. 18, 2007, letter to Graven from then Chief Legislative Counsel Raymond Etcitty, which states that the letter of intent signed by him and Morgan was "not a valid agreement" because it did not conform with Navajo Nation rules governing agreements with outside entities.
"All agreements between the Navajo Nation and outside entities must be processed and approved in accordance with Navajo Nation law," Etcitty wrote, citing the Navajo Nation Business Opportunity Act, the Navajo Nation Procurement Act, and the Navajo Business and Procurement Act.
He added that "all legislative branch agreements and contracts must be reviewed and approved by the Office of the Speaker, Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, Office of Legislative Counsel, Business Regulatory Department, Office of the Controller, and the Office of Management and Budget."
"Although it appears the letter of intent was intended to be a binding agreement between your company and the Navajo Nation, the letter of intent was not drafted, processed and approved in accordance with the above-referenced Navajo Nation laws," Etcitty wrote.
Etcitty's letter bore the signatures of four top tribal officials, Assistant Attorney General Luralene Tapahe, Controller Mark Grant, Office of Management and Budget executive director Dominic Beyal, and Business Regulatory Department director Frank Nez.
Davis strongly urged the Navajo Times to speak with acting Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez, who took over for Etcitty after the latter left for another job last spring, several months after notifying Graven that Morgan's letter of intent was no good.
Seanez was on travel Tuesday and on Wednesday was in a meeting and was unavailable for comment.
Graven said news that the letter of intent violated tribal laws came as a shock to him, and that he had trusted Morgan to supply a document that was legal in the eyes of the Navajo Nation.
Graven said did not initiate contact with Morgan, Morgan approached him by telephone on Feb. 23, 2007, and asked him to work on the new legislative complex.
He did not draft the letter of intent, that was done by Morgan's agent Judith Dworkin, Graven said.
On Tuesday, Morgan was contacted by the Times but did not explain why he had not followed tribal procedures in his dealings with Graven.
Instead, Morgan told the Times reporter to see Davis, saying, "He'll give you a couple of legal opinions."
Etcitty's legal opinion, however, does not address the speaker's failure to follow tribal procedure, nor explain why Graven should be penalized for that lapse.
Davis was sked why he and Morgan, who presides over the legislative body that created those laws and procedures, did not follow them. David said he could not comment on that.
Indeed, the Navajo business and procurement laws that prohibit no-bid contracts and other one-on-one deals outside the normal oversight channels are not mentioned in the large quantity of correspondence surrounding development of the letter of intent.
In his Sept. 4 letter, Graven reminded Morgan of their meeting on Feb. 26, 2007, in Window Rock, which is when Morgan sketched his concept for the new building.
According to Graven, Morgan urged him to work quickly because "he wanted the complex completed and open by the time of the next election."
Morgan's drawing shows a three-story curvilinear building topped by a swimming pool, helicopter landing pad, and a dome-shaped speaker's office on the roof.
To the north he roughed in a depiction of the existing Diné Education Center to show the site location for the new structure.
Morgan explained that it would bring all the legislative branch offices - now scattered throughout Window Rock - together under one roof.
He believed the legislative complex was one way to begin improving the efficiency of government operations as quickly as possible, Graven said.
Later, he said, Morgan told him not to show the swimming pool in his architectural drawings for the project.
Graven said he and his staff worked from late February until October 2007 without payment while Morgan kept assuring him that he would be paid.
"When you talk to the speaker of the nation, shouldn't you be able to trust him?" Graven asked.
Morgan, in a telephone message to the Times Tuesday night, pointed to a section of Etcitty's letter that addressed a "preliminary review" of Graven's business history and his companies.
The review revealed "various unpaid judgments, currently pending litigation, and bankruptcy, some of which relate to (Graven's) past dealings with other Indian tribes."
"These preliminary findings regarding your business record are sufficient by themselves to raise serious doubts relative to your ability to perform as a potential vendor to the Navajo Nation," Etcitty wrote. "...please be advised that the Navajo Nation will not be doing business with your company under the invalid and nonbinding Letter of Intent."
While Morgan's advisers say the letter of intent under which Graven performed work was invalid, no one accuses him of failing to fulfill his end of the bargain.
"I hope someone stands up and says, 'We need to do the right thing,' and pay me," Graven said.