Woman gets $800 tribal check by mistake

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, February 28, 2013

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Q uestions continue to grow as to why a Navajo Nation check was issued using money set aside for tribal scholarships and sent to a woman in Crownpoint.

In a Feb. 19 letter to tribal leaders and members of the Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee, Rose Graham, director of the Office of Navajo Scholarship and Financial Assistance, explained the problems the office is having with the tribe's finance department.

The problem began when the scholarship office received multiple past-due invoices for $940.76 from Apple's retail store in Albuquerque for an iPad that was purchased for an employee.

Graham said her staff completed and submitted the proper documents in October to the finance department to have the payment issued in a timely matter but was informed that the department was backlogged in processing payments.

Apple was notified about the finance department's situation and promised that payment would be issued shortly, she said.

In January, a scholarship office senior accountant noticed that $128.34 was paid but Apple did not receive the remaining balance of $812.42 despite the amount being charged to the scholarship office account.

After further investigation, the accountant learned the check was issued Jan. 17 to an individual named Cheryl Richards and mailed to a Post Office Box in Crownpoint.

Richards cashed the check Jan. 29 at a Walmart in Idabel, Okla.

During the Feb. 19 meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee, Controller Mark Grant explained when a payment request comes from the purchasing department it goes to Accounts Payable where payment is set and the check is printed and mailed.

In this case the error occurred when an employee in Accounts Payable mistyped the payment number so instead of the check being issued to Apple, it was issued to Richards.

Grant explained that Richards was a prior recipient of funds from the tribe and that was the reason her name was in the payment system.

When asked who Richards is and what type of business or service she provided the tribe and what year those payments were issued, Grant had no comment.

For now Richards is a name on a check, Graham said, then added that she does not know Richards.

"We don't send checks to people. We send checks to colleges and universities if it is a scholarship check. For businesses, none of our vendors have names," she said in an interview.

A message was sent to Richards after her profile was found on Facebook. She had not responded as of press time Wednesday.

Graham also mentioned that her department repeatedly contacted the Finance Department for an explanation as to how this check error occurred but no one responded.

In a Feb. 13 email to Grant, members of the Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee; Arbin Mitchell, President Ben Shelly's chief of staff; and members of the Navajo Nation's Departments of Justice and Diné Education, Graham wrote that the issue was brought to the attention of the Accounts Payable supervisor more than two weeks ago and when no reply was given, the scholarship office contacted the controller, who also did not respond.

"The controller evidently informed the Chief of Staff that they are processing the payment to the Apple Store; however, we need to know what sources of funds are being used, because they cannot use our business unit to pay that bill," Graham wrote.

"I think we should communicate. We're in the same building, communication is fairly easy," Graham said in the interview.

A check for $812.42 was eventually reissued and mailed Feb. 14 to Apple Inc. in Dallas, according to a Feb. 19 memorandum to Shelly from Lorena Eldridge, an accounting manager in the controller's office and concurred by Grant.

The memorandum also states that collection efforts have started and an account receivable has been set up for Richards, "whom is non tribal employee."

In the meantime, the scholarship office is also trying to recover the money from Richards.

A letter dated Feb. 12 from Graham to Richards explains the check was sent by mistake and requests that she repay the amount in full.

"There are Navajo Nation Scholarship federal funds for which documentation is required," Graham wrote.

In his report to the Budget and Finance Committee, Grant said his department could ask the Navajo Nation Department of Justice to write a letter on its behalf to ask Richards to repay the tribe.

When asked if such a letter has been written and what steps are being taken to recover the amount from Richards, Grant directed all legal questions to the Justice Department.

As of press time Wednesday, there was no response from the Justice Department.

Despite the bill from Apple finally being paid, Graham is concerned about where the money came from to issue the second check, since the amount issued to Richards was paid by scholarship funding.

When asked what funding was used to issue the second check, Grant did not answer but stated, "An accounts receivable was established for collection of funds."

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