Utah Diné support nonprofit to oversee trust fund monies

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

MEXICAN WATER, Utah, March 1, 2012

Text size: A A A

(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Community member Victor Lee makes a point at a hearing on the Utah Navajo Trust Fund Feb. 22 in Mexican Water, Utah, as, seated, left to right, Council Delegate Kenneth Maryboy (Aneth/Mexican Water/Red Mesa/Teec Nos Pos/Tólikan), Vice President Rex Lee Jim, President Ben Shelly and first lady Martha Shelly look on.

I f a series of seven public hearings held in February is any indication, most Utah Navajos want the new nonprofit Utah Dineh Corp. to manage the $50 million Utah Navajo Trust Fund.

But at the Feb. 22 hearing in Mexican Water, some of President Ben Shelly's staff members wondered how accurate a gauge the hearings were, considering a lot of the same people were showing up at all the hearings and voicing their opinions over and over.

"We organized these meetings to see what people from each chapter think," said Erny Zah, Shelly's communications director. "Instead, we're getting people from other chapters who are just going from meeting to meeting."

"That shouldn't be a concern," said an attendee. "If you hold a public hearing, anyone who wants can come and speak."

What was evident at the meeting is a deep-seated distrust of the tribal government among Utah Navajos, and a feeling of neglect.

"You're not being honest with us," said one woman to Shelly after he made a PowerPoint presentation on options for managing the trust - including his preferred alternative, management by the tribe.

"You're not meeting us halfway," the woman said. "The honesty and the truth, you always have to rely on that. That's missing here.

"The Navajo tribe does not recognize Utah."

A resident of Mexican Water noted that the president and Council can change every election year, and wondered if future administrations would reserve the trust fund for Utah Navajos as it was intended.

He pointed to the money that was supposed to be reserved for development of the former Bennett Freeze, and was used to buy land outside that area for the Twin Arrows Casino. (Tribal officials, including Shelly, said the casino qualified for the money because it would be a major source of jobs for Freeze residents.)

Another Utah Navajo, Tom Peterson, said the choice between the public sector and the private sector is clear.

"The public (sector), they have channels, they have red tape, they have a lot of different ways they can tie up the money," he said. "One main ingredient this area is missing is money. We need money; we need it now, not 10 years from now."

3-way tug-of-war

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Kenneth Maryboy (Aneth/Mexican Water/Red Mesa/Teec Nos Pos/Tólikan) said all 29 counties in Utah along with all seven tribes in Utah and the Navajo Nation's Western Agency have passed resolutions supporting putting a nonprofit comprised of Utah Navajos in charge of the trust fund.

Among the seven chapters that are entirely or partially located in Utah, only Aneth (where the oil wells are located) and Dennehotso have not climbed on board.

The refrain "Keep the money in Utah!" kept coming up, but Vice President Rex Lee Jim said that's not the issue, noting that federal law allocates 37 1/2 percent of oil royalties collected on the Aneth Extension to the trust automatically, reserving that money for the use of Utah Navajos.

"This 37 1/2 percent is for Utah Navajos," he said. "That's not even a point of discussion."

The money was collected by the feds, passed through the Navajo Nation, held in trust by the state of Utah and administered by the Utah Navajo Development Corp. until the end of 2008, when the state, which was being sued by a group of Utah Navajos for not providing enough oversight of the funds, bowed out.

Since then, the trust - which has swelled to $50 million after the state settled with the Utah Navajos for $33 million in 2010 - has been more or less frozen while Maryboy's faction, the tribe, and a group of Aneth residents known as the Descendants of K'aayeelii bicker over who should manage it.

While the settlement was being finalized, Maryboy and Blanding CPA Phil Lyman, who serve together on the San Juan County Commission, set up the nonprofit Utah Dineh Corp. specifically to manage the fund.

The new corporation has the support of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who last July introduced a bill to transfer trusteeship to the Utah Dineh Corp. But, as happened with a similar bill introduced by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, in 2009, it remains stalled in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee while senators sort out conflicting testimony from the Maryboy faction and the Shelly Administration.

"I told Congress that we, you and I, could work this thing out," Shelly told the crowd during his presentation.

Trust in short supply (subhed)

The Descendants of K'aayeelii, who originally formed their own corporation to administer the fund, have since switched their allegiance to the tribe.

K'aayeelii member Denton Ben said in a previous interview he does not trust the Utah Dineh Corp. to administer the money as it is comprised of some of the same individuals who fronted the Utah Navajo Development Corp.

He accuses the now-defunct UNDC of careless recordkeeping and backing some slipshod business deals that led to the lawsuit against the state in the first place.

Jim and Shelly said the tribe is the logical entity to hold the trust monies because it already has investment planners and strategies in place that can grow the fund. (Unless it's invested, Shelly pointed out in his PowerPoint presentation, the money runs out when the oil does.)

Jim also mentioned that if a nonprofit corporation both manages and administers the fund, the beneficiaries would not be able to recoup losses if they don't like the way it is managing their money.

"If you have a nonprofit that does not have a pocket deep enough to pay you back, you lose your money," he said.

He added that the tribe could be the trustee - holding and investing the money - with a nonprofit administering the fund - that is, deciding how it is spent.

A few individuals who spoke at the meeting mentioned that the Utah Dineh Corp. is not the only contender for administering the trust. Blue Mountain Dineh, a Blanding-based nonprofit that serves the Navajo community; the K'aayeelii corporation, or a yet-to-be organized entity based on input from the meetings could all qualify, they said.

Council Delegate Russell Begaye (Shiprock) even suggested the Utah Navajos set up a for-profit corporation so they could use the fund to leverage private capital investment.

"You can have a nonprofit too," he advised. "Don't limit yourself."

The trust was established by a 1933 Act of Congress to reserve some oil money to improve living conditions on the Aneth Extension (the other 62 1/2 percent of the royalties go to the tribe). In 1968, the law was amended to allow the funds to be used for the betterment of all Navajos living in San Juan County, Utah.

In the past, it has been used to build schools, health facilities and housing, and to help Utah Diné with college tuition.

Zah said that once the responses from the meetings are analyzed, "we'll go from there."

The president's office could revise the alternatives, hold more meetings, or formulate a plan - "although I don't think we're anywhere near there yet," he added. "We seem to still be at the stage of dispelling misconceptions."

The goal, Zah said, "is to come up with a plan that's at least acceptable to all Utah Navajos."

Back to top ^