Hopi chairman stripped of administrative duties

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Dec. 12, 2011

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While Hopi Tribal Chairman Leroy Shingoitewa was in Washington for President Barack Obama's Tribal Nations Conference, the Hopi Tribal Council voted unanimously to strip him of his administrative duties.

The Council also terminated the contract of interim tribal lawyer Robert Lyttle, effective Dec. 31.

The administrative duties, "essentially all matters relating to employees and personnel," according to a press release from Shingoitewa's office, will be shifted to Vice Chairman Herman Honanie until a chief administrative officer can be hired.

"If this shift in duties is allowable under the constitution, it will allow me to focus on some of the other major issues affecting our tribe," Shingoitewa was quoted as saying in the press release. "Following a move such as this, it will be interesting to see how the vice chairman and council respond to the challenges we face."

The Nov. 30 resolution, passed 12-0 with no abstentions, accuses Shingoitewa of firing tribal employees without due process, lack of follow-up on "critical financial matters" including a computer glitch that caused tribal employees to miss a paycheck, and failing to provide budget information to the council's Budget Oversight Team.

The accompanying resolution to fire Lyttle does not give a reason, but in recent Council meetings some representatives have complained that Lyttle's fees were too high, citing monthly invoices as high as $124,000.

In his press release, Shingoitewa defended Lyttle, hinting that the Council may have ulterior motives for firing him.

"Mr. Lyttle and his team have uncovered much wrongdoing within the Tribe itself and have been working to right many wrongs that have been done against the Hopi people," Shingoitewa said. "This will place much more of a spotlight and accountability on each of the council members moving forward."

He added, "Mr. Lyttle's team has represented the Hopi Tribe very well in many of the legal issues we have faced and continue to fight - but now we'll have to educate an entirely new team to fight for our causes. When all billings are examined I think the council will also be surprised to find that Mr. Lyttle and other legal experts were charging the Tribe far less than any previous administrations."

Lyttle, however, has been accused of overcharging before. A 2001 Tucson Citizen article reported some members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council, for which Lyttle was general counsel at the time, complained that the attorney had rung up $391,000 in six months - more than four times the amount he was contracted for during the entire year.

Lyttle did not return a phone call Tuesday.

The Council passed a resolution Nov. 30, 2009 - the day before Shingoitewa and Honanie took office - delegating administrative matters to a hired chief administrative officer, but one has never been hired.

Former Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa faced a similar action in February 2008 when the Council passed a resolution depriving him of all his executive authority. It rescinded the resolution after a BIA official explained the ramifications - that every official action with Nuvamsa's signature, including the budget, would be nullified if he was stripped of authority.

The present resolution leaves Shingoitewa's executive authority intact for the most part - it's the day-to-day items like signing time sheets and travel authorizations that will now fall to Honanie.

Honanie issued a memo Dec. 1 directing department managers to report to him rather than Shingoitewa, and all routine documents to be routed to his office "until the hiring of a CAO."

Shingoitewa's chief of staff, Curtis Honanie (a distant relative of Herman Honanie), took issue with the transfer of powers, saying it will "set the tribe back two years."

"Over the past two years we have worked together and we have made much progress, largely because the chairman and vice chairman have been able to share responsibilities," Curtis Honanie said. "I consider this resolution a step backward."

Curtis Honanie also questioned whether the move was allowable under the Hopi Constitution, which specifically sets out the duties of the chairman.

As for the charge that Shingoitewa fired people without cause, Honanie said it's "absolutely untrue."

"All of the terminations were justified," he said. "Every one of the people terminated admitted committing the violations they were charged with. No formal grievances were made against the Human Resources Department."

The accusation that information was not shared with the Budget Oversight Team does not reflect on the chairman, his chief of staff said, but rather on the finance director.

Honanie said that, in spite of the changes in duties, the tribal government will function as usual.

"The biggest thing the chairman has told us is that he has no intention of quitting," he said. "We're going to press on with the two years left in his term and continue to make progress for the Hopi people."

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