Shelly: Lobbyist hiring not linked to Kyl bill
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK, May 19, 2012
A blog for the Legal Times, a weekly newspaper owned by American Lawyer Media, said March 20 that Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck "has notified Congress it is lobbying on legislation that would settle water rights claims of the southwestern tribe."
Quoting from a lobbying registration report that the firm filed "the week before," the blog stated the firm was hired "to advocate on the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act " that was introduced Feb. 14 by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
That statement brought into question exactly when the law firm was hired by the Navajo Nation.
In a press release issued Sunday, President Ben Shelly said he needed to clarify some aspects of that report, which appeared in last week's Navajo Times.
He said the firm was hired last October by the Navajo Nation's Department of Justice with the support of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, "to assist the Navajo Nation in developing congressional support for Indian water rights settlement."
Shelly said he wanted the Navajo people to know that the firm was hired before Kyl introduced the bill.
"When Navajo issues come before Congress, it is the duty of the Navajo Nation to ensure the interests of the Navajo people are heard," Shelly said in his press statement.
The tribal Justice Department also issued a statement stating that the firm was hired prior to Kyl's introduction of the bill.
"The firm was retained to lay the foundation in Congress for potential settlements that have yet to be considered by the Navajo Nation Council, including a proposed water rights settlement with the state of Utah," the DOJ release stated.
DOJ also said the process to identify funds that can be used in a water rights settlement is "complex and ever revolving" and decisions about who will sponsor legislation and which committees will hear it takes someone who is familiar with how Congress works.
"The Nation hired Brownstein based on its expertise in these matters," the release stated.
In his release, Shelly pointed out that hiring lobbyists is nothing new for the Navajo Nation. In the past, it has used firms like Brownstein "to help inform federal leaders about a variety of issues such as Navajo-Hopi issues, the Navajo Indian Irrigation project and environmental issues," he stated.
The announcement that the tribe had hired Brownstein touched off criticism from groups opposed to the water rights settlement that recently became public, who contend the settlement is being propelled forward without adequate understanding or input by tribal members.
While people in the president's office and tribal lawyers were aware of the hiring, not too many others were.
On Friday, Speaker Johnny Naize issued his own release stating that he wanted to "assure the Navajo people that Council delegates and I did not contact or contract a lobbying firm for the Navajo Nation."
Naize stressed that Council would follow the process for taking an official position on the water rights settlement.
This includes holding public meetings on the settlement. He said a task force - composed of delegates Lorenzo Curley, Water Phelps, Alton Shepherd and Dwight Witherspoon has been assigned to oversee that process and report back to the Council on what develops through the hearings.
Naize pledged that the Council's process to reach a position will be "transparent."
In his release, Naize questioned what other lobbyists have been hired by the Department of Justice and for what reason, and on Friday he sent DOJ a written request for a list of all of the lobbying firms hired by the department or retained with its approval.
According to the Legal Times blog, "Brownstein is currently the only firm registered to lobby for the Navajo nation as a whole, according to congressional records.
"The Nordhaus Law Firm is registered to lobby for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. The Navajo Nation as a whole hasn't had a firm lobby for it since Perkins Cole stopped advocating for it in 2010," the Legal Times said.