The Navajo Nation Council has made a move to fire the tribe’s attorney general, alleging he’s been unresponsive to the council’s directives and hasn’t worked well on behalf of the Navajo people.
Council delegate Dwight Witherspoon is the primary sponsor of the bill to remove Attorney General Harrison Tsosie from office, and he is joined by nine co-sponsors.
Tsosie says he has concerns about irregularities in the legislative process to attempt to remove him, but his biggest complaint is that the reasons for the attack remain unclear.
“The real problem with this legislation is there is no legitimate reason for my removal that’s provided in the legislation,” he said, adding that’s why he kept mum when the bill was first made public, late last week. “Any reason for the removal I would pretty much have to speculate on.”
The ambiguity is also keeping Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly quiet.
“I want to know what the council’s reasons are for making a move like this,” he said, in his only statement on the subject. “I want to know more details before I speak on this matter.”
The legislation itself, dated March 14, gives few clues as to the legislature’s rationale.
“By a vote of no confidence, Mr. Harrison Tsosie shall be immediately removed as the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice,” the bill reads.
But a supplement to the bill, an April 3 letter written by Albuquerque attorney James Zion, offers more insight.
“I write to recommend that Mr. Harrison Tsosie should be removed as Attorney General of the Navajo Nation,” Zion writes. He cites four reasons for his opinion: “favoritism of corporate interests in violation of duties of trust and representation of the public; failure to properly supervise department attorneys and correct improper conduct on behalf of some attorneys; a lack of professional competence; compromising the best interests of the Navajo Nation for the personal gains of others.”
As attorney general, Tsosie serves at the council’s pleasure as head of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice under the tribe’s executive branch.
He says he’s most proud of several major initiatives he’s helped envision or accomplish, including the Desert Rock Energy Project, which would have included a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant on the reservation, had it been successful. He’s also helped pave the way for gaming on the Nation, which is about to open its fourth casino. He helped negotiate the San Juan Navajo Water Rights Settlement, which was approved by the Navajo Nation, New Mexico and the United States in 2010 and is now navigating a contested review in the courts.
Tsosie was a key negotiator on the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement of 2012, which drew heated opposition among Navajo and Hopi grassroots activists before being killed in the Navajo Nation Council.
“That was in the works for probably 30 years, since 1979,” Tsosie said. “Obviously in a settlement, everyone does not get everything they want. But at least from my perspective it was a good settlement for the Navajo Nation. Not necessarily all provisions, but overall.”
Most recently, Tsosie has helped to negotiate the lease renewal for the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona, as well as the proposed purchase by the Navajo Nation of the BHP Navajo Coal Mine, in Fruitland, New Mexico.
Council members involved in the legislation did not respond to numerous e-mails and phone calls over several days. But the Associated Press reported that bill co-sponsors complained about Tsosie’s handling of the LCR settlement, the NGS lease and the process to evaluate the purchase of the coal mine.
Relations between Tsosie and the council got particularly thorny over the proposed extension of the NGS lease, which drew opposition when it was presented to council because it was negotiated without any council members.
According to a March 1 legislative press release on the hearing, Delegate Alton Shepherd – who has now become one of the co-sponsors of the bill to remove Tsosie – was the first to raise concerns, and asked Tsosie for additional documentation detailing how the negotiating team was established.
“The Attorney General is supposed to be abiding by the law, and I want to see the documentation as far as section 105, Title 18,” said Shepherd, referring to a little-known – and never before used – provision of the Navajo Nation Code that mandates legislative representation.
As part of his response, Tsosie said Title 18 was written in 1989, under circumstances that are no longer relevant.
“I don’t know where the AG is coming from,” Shepherd interjected at one point, according to the press release. “The laws are here, and for him to change my mind to say [this law] was written way back then, ‘we’re not going to abide by it,’ but we have laws.”
Delegate Witherspoon, now the primary sponsor of the bill to remove Tsosie, also took him to task during the March 1 hearing, pointedly asking Tsosie if he believed Shelly was breaking the law in not using Title 18 as a guide for the renegotiation of the NGS lease.
The bill to remove Tsosie is in committee, but hasn't yet been scheduled for full-council vote. If Tsosie is fired, Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff will step in until the council confirms a replacement.
Erny Zah, Shelly’s spokesman, said he hopes council will consider how difficult it can be to hire suitable workers for top-level positions.
“As many people as we have who are qualified to take many of these positions within the Navajo Nation government, one of our challenges is to find proper compensation for some of these people,” he said. “We have people who move back, but they’re taking pay cuts. A lot of people who come back sacrificing pay are usually saying ‘I want to be home, closer to family.’ But finding housing is difficult. That’s another one of the challenges.”
As an example, Zah pointed out, the chief of police position has been vacant for two and a half years. That’s partly because the Nation can afford to offer somewhere in the ballpark of $60,000 a year, as compensation for a person who manages a staff of 280 officers.
“If the police person were to go off the Navajo Nation and take on the same size force, they’d make $100,000 to $120,000,” he said. “Add in land issues, jurisdictional issues, and it would be a fair proposition for these people to expect even more compensation. Who are the qualified people who can run the DOJ? There are qualified people, but are they willing to take less than they can make elsewhere?”
Overall, Zah said he questions whether a vote to oust Tsosie is in the best interest of the Navajo people: “Is this going to strengthen the Navajo Nation? That’s what we have to consider,” he said.