New bar prez sniffs out mismanagement

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, January 10, 2013

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S hortly after taking office last August as president of the Navajo Bar Association, Bernadine Martin learned that the association was in deep financial trouble.

"I was shocked," said the Navajo Nation's chief prosecutor Wednesday during an interview in her office.

Within weeks of taking office, Martin learned of serious mismanagement of bar association funds, possibly going back a number of years.

But the problems went further than that with the discovery that certain bills had not been paid, resulting in the lapse of the association's insurance and loss of its status as a non-profit organization.

The loss of insurance forced the association's board of commissioners to put its secretary, Yolanda Wauneka, on paid administrative leave for two weeks. She has been brought back to work but has been told that until the insurance coverage is back in force, she is "not to travel outside the office" on bar association business.

"We have had hours and hours of meetings to try and address all of these problems," said Martin, who has also been spending a lot of time e-mailing bar members who have expressed concern that the financial problems may cause the association to close its doors.

Two members of the association's board have resigned in the last few weeks, with one saying that he could not stay on with the association facing its current problems.

She also expressed that the problems would soon affect members of the bar because dues for 2013 were due to be paid in January and there was no guarantee that the association's problems would be resolved.

"I have been spending a lot of time addressing a lot of rumors that have been going around," said Martin, who added that the board has confronted the problems and steps are being taken to get the organization back on a level financial footing.

A preliminary investigation has revealed that there are some bar association funds that have come up missing and the association is now conducting an investigation to determine what happened to them. The association hasn't said how much is involved but Martin said it was a "high" figure.

The association was able to secure the services on a pro bono basis of Greenberg Taurig, one of the world's largest and most experienced law firms.

Martin said she is now working with Troy Eid, a long-time bar association member and the former United states Attorney for the District of Columbia, and Richard Perkun, an expert in federal income taxation and tax compliance, "to investigate the discrepancies" in the association's financial records.

That has proved to be difficult, she said, because some records are missing and others are incomplete.

Once that initial accounting is completed, Martin said the board will have a better understanding of just how much money is involved.

"Many rumors have arisen lately as to why the money appears to be missing, how much may have been unaccounted for, and so on," Martin said in an e-mail sent out to bar association members on Dec. 5.

Because of the financial situation, the board has directed Martin and others involved in running the association to use its remaining funds only for "essential operations."

"I am by nature frugal," Martin said, adding that even without that directive, she would not be spending association funds on non-essential items.

To save money, bar association members are being kept up-to-date on what's going on with the investigation by e-mail instead of letters.

The continued operation of the bar association is important because it is through the association that the Navajo court system controls who is able to practice in Navajo courts.

Martin said she has kept Navajo Chief Justice Herb Yazzie informed of what the association is doing to correct its current financial problems and he has sent letters back saying he has confidence in the board's ability to do this.

The association has close to 300 active members, all of whom pay $130 a year to be a member of the association. That brings in about $39,000 annually. Added to that are fees paid by about 100 inactive members, who pay less in dues than active members.

Normally, members of the association have until Feb. 1 to pay their dues without a late fee but because of the controversy surrounding the association's financial situation, Martin said that deadline has been extended to Feb. 15.

As far as prosecution of anyone in connection with the missing funds, Martin said that she has decided that having the white collar crime unit of her office to do the investigation would be a conflict of interest.

As a result, the matter has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney's office for possible prosecution.

The association's board is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 16 and Martin said she planned to resend a report to the board at that time on the steps that have been taken to correct the situation.

In the meantime, she will continue sending out e-mails to members quelling any new rumors that come up and to stress that the bar association is on the road to recovery.

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