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Controller: Some special duty/hazard pay ‘excessive’

WINDOW ROCK

Certain Navajo government employees received large amounts of special duty/hazard pay during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But exactly who got those payments has not been publicized.

This is because the Navajo Auditor General’s Office has not completed an audit of the pay due to staffing issues and challenges accessing records.

In a Jan. 17 letter to President Jonathan Nez, Acting Controller Elizabeth Begay reported that in addition to their regular wages, a total of $17.2 million in COVID-19 special duty and hazard pay was paid out to executive, legislative and judicial branch employees between March 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdowns began, and February 2021.

Begay also deemed amounts that were paid out to some employees as “excessive.”

As she reported, individual amounts paid for special duty pay ran as high as $22,789 for one exempt employee and $31,248 for a non-exempt employee.

The highest hazard duty pay amount was $8,282 for one exempt employee and $10,953 for a non-exempt employee.

For this reason, Begay turned over her report to the auditor general for “further review and verification.”

“Our office just compiled all the special duty and hazard duty pay to produce the OOC report and I asked auditor general to validate (i.e., review supporting documents, etc.),” Begay said in a Feb. 11 response to a Navajo Times request for more detail regarding the payments.

“Therefore, I feel more comfortable for the auditor general to provide the specific information based on the audited data than the compiled data,” said Begay.

Auditor general office vacancies

However, that audit has yet to be completed due to a staffing shortage in the auditor general’s office and delays in gathering all of the necessary information, according to the delegated auditor general, Helen Brown.

On Feb. 17, Brown confirmed to the Navajo Times that the review was ongoing and deemed as confidential any information pertaining to the investigation until their final audit report is issued.

“The assigned audit team is working diligently to complete this review by 03.31.22 but there is a lot of information and data that the auditors have to review and analyze,” she said.

When Navajo Times requested the report on April 1, Brown responded that a more “realistic” target for completion of the audit would be sometime in May or June.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of expenditure data ($17 million) that we had to compile, reconcile and analyze to ensure necessary and applicable payments are examined,” Brown said in an email.

After another follow-up from Navajo Times on May 26, Brown said the audit was still in progress.

“The two assigned auditors have been working diligently to complete this review but they have a lot of records to review as these records are located in various locations with different record-keeping systems,” said Brown.

She said their work will also need to go through a standard quality review in accordance with audit standards.

Brown said the target completion date was still June 2022, but did not give a specific date, and indicated staffing shortages were causing delays.

“Unfortunately, we still have several vacancies for our office,” said Brown. “We have five associate auditor positions vacant at this time.”

She said while these vacancies are entry-level positions, they are important in assisting with audits, especially large projects such as the special duty/hazard pay audit.

Mitigating COVID-19

Special duty pay was authorized due to the COVID-19 emergency defined in an executive order (No. 001-2020) and was paid to eligible employees who were considered essential and were required to continue working during the Navajo Nation COVID-19 shutdown.

Separately, hazard pay is generally intended for frontline workers.

According to a Jan. 18, 2021, memo issued by former Controller Pearline Kirk, in order for divisions and employees of the Navajo Nation to be eligible for reimbursement by CARES Act funds for special duty pay, they had to have a job duty that was considered to be substantially dedicated to “preparing, responding or mitigating COVID-19.”

This included public health, public safety, health care, human services and similar employees, said Kirk.

As outlined in the executive order and further explained in Kirk’s memorandums, special duty pay was eligible only to individuals that follow the Navajo Nation’s Personnel Policy Manual, including all Navajo Nation government employees and certain employees of non-LGA certified chapters.

Navajo Nation enterprises and LGA-certified chapter employees were not eligible for special duty pay under the personnel policy manual.

In her report, Begay noted that the Navajo Nation procedures afforded special duty to employees who worked physically at their worksite or telework during the lockdowns.

Sources of funding for the pay included the CARES Act ($1.6 million), external grants ($9.6 million), business unit contracts ($21,259), and other general funds ($5.9 million).

Payment amounts

According to Begay’s report, of the $17.2 million paid out to employees, $12.8 million was for special duty pay and $4.4 million was for hazard pay, per Begay’s report.

Ranges of of amounts paid for special duty pay included:

  • 15 employees paid between $20,000-$31,248 each.
  • 28 employees paid between $15,000-$19,999 each.
  • 192 employees paid between $10,000-$14,999 each.
  • 623 employees paid between $5000-$9,999 each.
  • 1,958 employees paid between $1,000-$4,999 each.
  • 846 employees paid less than $1,000 each.

Amounts paid for hazard pay included:

  • 2 employees paid between $10,000-$10,953 each.
  • 136 employees paid between $5,000-$9,999 each.
  • 1,477 employees paid between $1,000-$4,999 each.
  • 641 paid less than $1,000 each.

A Feb. 17 request to speaker’s office Communications Director Alray Nelson and president’s office Communications Director Jared Touchin for the complete list of employees that received payment and at what amounts under their respective branches also went unanswered.

Challenges in locating records

In a response on Tuesday to another request for an update on the audit sent by the Navajo Times to Speaker Seth Damon, who oversees the office as head of the legislative branch, said the two auditors assigned to the audit have completed about 90% of their work on the audit.

Brown reported that their work involved reviewing supporting documentation to make sure payments were made in accordance with “applicable guidelines, policies, and procedures,” but they were also facing challenges in “locating applicable records.”

“For the past two months, the auditors have been going back and forth between the Office of the Controller and the records warehouse in Fort Defiance, Arizona, attempting to locate as many records as possible,” Brown stated.

“Unfortunately, the supporting documentation for these payments is not well organized,” she said. “Therefore, it has been a time-consuming task for the auditors to complete their work.”

Brown said due to limited staffing, the auditors have outsourced quality review to another audit professional to review the work to ensure it complies with government auditing standards.

She said the goal now is to complete the draft report by June 30 and submit it to the external consultant for quality review and the audit will “likely get finalized” in July.

Nelson, the speaker’s office communications director, said on Tuesday that Speaker Damon was aware of the vacancies and understands the importance of completing all audits in a timely manner.

He also said the speaker’s office has full confidence in the Delegated Auditor General Brown.

“The ongoing pandemic and a decreasing job applicant pool are key factors to these delays,” said Nelson.

 As a public service, the Navajo Times is making all coverage of the coronavirus pandemic fully available on its website. Please support the Times by subscribing.

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About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst has been with the Navajo Times since July of 2018, and covers our Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats. Prior to joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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