Shelly fights proposal for management of Utah trust

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 13, 2012

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The Navajo Nation continues to oppose a bill currently in Congress that would turn over the administration of Utah trust funds to a nonprofit.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, states that the Utah Navajo Trust, which contains millions of dollars, needs to be handled by an independent body to avoid any conflicts.

The trust is funded by royalties paid by oil and gas companies operating in the Utah portion of the reservation.

Unlike in other areas, where the royalties go to the tribe to be used for all Navajos, the Utah Navajo Trust specifies that the tribe's portion of the royalties - 37.5 percent - are to be used solely for the benefit of Navajos living in Utah.

But President Ben Shelly, speaking Wednesday at a Navajo Utah Commission meeting in Teec Nos Pos Chapter, said the tribe's position remains the same as it has been for the past several years.

"The Navajo position is to appoint the Navajo Nation as trustee of the trust," he said. "That will be consistent with the principles of self-determination."

Many Navajos in Utah fear the money would disappear, as it did when the state of Utah managed the trust.

When the trust was established in 1933, the state of Utah was appointed trustee but by 1995, after allegations that millions of dollars had been misspent, state officials said they wanted to be rid of the responsibility for overseeing it.

And the battle for control was on.

At one time, the state had a special office that oversaw the funds but that was closed down in 2007 after charges that the money had been mismanaged and none of it was getting back to the Utah portion of the Navajo Reservation. At that time the supervision was turned over to the Utah Department of Administrative Services.

As of June 30, 2011, the trust fund contained a little over $54 million. Its annual take varies depending on the volume extracted and the price it fetches in a given year.

In 2009, about $2.1 million came in. In 2010, the trust earned $3.1 million and in 2011, it was up to $4.6 million.

Expenditures have been restricted while the debate continues about who will succeed the state in managing it.

The only uses that have been approved during the past two years were scholarships for Utah Navajos, to complete capital improvement projects that were authorized before 2008, and to pay for building maintenance costs - but not services - at the Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek health clinics.

Hatch and other members of Congress from Utah argue against giving control to the Navajo Nation because of fear that the funds would be mismanaged.

But Shelly said Wednesday that won't happen.

"The Navajo Nation has a successful record of managing and increasing its own trust fund. It has a highly developed legal system with a large body of statutory and decisional law and a well-established budgetary process," he said.

Yet the problems Navajo Nation leaders have had spending the Veterans Trust Fund correctly, and the alleged self-dealing of tribal leaders involving funds meant for the needy has not bolstered the confidence of tribal members, especially those living in Utah.

Shelly said there are now plans in the works to hold a series of town hall meetings with Utah Navajos in early February "to develop a consensus on how to administer the trust."

Hatch, however, wants to set up an independent nonprofit body to run the trust, arguing that this would be the best way to make sure the funds are spent to the best benefit of Utah Navajos.

Shelly argues that if the independent group breaches that responsibility, neither the tribe nor the people it is supposed to serve will have any remedy.

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