Some Utah Diné want state to return

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, March 29, 2012

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T hree Utah Navajos say the state had no right to resign as trustee of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund in 2008, and are suing in U.S. District Court to force it to resume the post.

According to trust beneficiaries Mary Benally, Terrance Lee and Marietta Tom, the state of Utah acted illegally when it passed legislation to remove it from its trustee responsibility for the $50 million Utah Navajo Trust, a post it was given by the act of Congress that created the trust in 1933.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was in Washington, D.C., this week and unavailable for comment.

In their complaint filed March 17, the Utah Navajos claim the law that created the trust had no provisions for a trustee to resign, and the state's action has left assets frozen for the past four years that could have been used to improve the lives of Utah Navajos.

Ironically, the state resigned as trustee after being sued by the Navajo beneficiaries for mismanaging the trust.

Pelt v. Utah, as the previous lawsuit was named, was filed two decades ago and alleged that the state had lost millions of dollars through mismanagement. That suit was settled early in 2010 for $33 million.

However, the new plaintiffs allege, that does not mean Utah can abandon its watch and place the money in a holding fund, which is what it did.

"Under no circumstances may a trustee who seeks to resign do so until a successor trustee is in place, able and willing to carry out the terms of the trust so as to avoid violation of strict and exacting fiduciary obligations a trustee always owes to beneficiaries," their complaint asserts.

The trust has been idle while Utah Navajos have been feuding among themselves and with the tribal government over who should manage the trust, which receives 37 1/2 percent of oil and gas royalties in the Aneth Extension and is reserved for projects that will benefit Navajos living in San Juan County, Utah.

The matter must ultimately be resolved by Congress, but over the past few years, two Senate bills ceding control of the trust to a new nonprofit set up for the purpose have been stuck in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee with committee members uncertain as to which Navajos to listen to.

President Ben Shelly's position has been that the tribe should be the trustee, and some residents of the Aneth Extension agree.

However, most of the eight chapters with land in Utah have passed resolutions in favor of granting control to the Utah Dineh Corp.

Things got more complicated at recent public hearings on the topic, when other Utah Navajos stated they would like a non-governmental entity to take charge, but not necessarily the Utah Dineh Corp.

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, "UTF administrators are violating federal law and, in the process, causing irreparable harm to thousands of beneficiaries for whom the NTF has historically operated to build safe and affordable housing; bring electricity to existing homes; develop critical water sources for people, crops and livestock; provide business opportunities in southeastern Utah; supplement college tuition and costs; promote safety and stability in communities and families; and meet the beneficiaries' many additional health, education, economic, transportation and humanitarian needs."

The plaintiffs are asking the federal court to order Utah to resume its post and start distributing the frozen assets. They also want attorney fees.

The state has until May 21 to respond to the suit.

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