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Controller, delegates push Hardship payments

WINDOW ROCK

On Tuesday, acting Navajo Nation Controller Elizabeth Begay informed the Budget and Finance Committee that approximately 1,000 approved and 9,000 wait-listed Hardship Assistance applicants who have not received their checks are now in limbo since the controller’s contractor, Baker Tilly, has put its CARES Act work on hold.

Baker Tilly is the firm that administered the Navajo CARES Act Hardship Assistance online portal through which tribal members submitted applications, including personal information and Certificates of Indian Blood.

“We recognize there is sensitive information in that so we’re working on transferring that Navajo Nation asset back to OOC,” said Begay.

Baker Tilly’s Navajo “CARES Hardship Program Support Center” phone line is now closed.

The “NNCaresHelp” email address automatically replies, “With the recent events affecting the Office of the Controller, we (Baker Tilly) have paused all of our work with regards to the CARES Act. As such, we are unable to respond to your request at this time. We are hopeful that the Interim Controller and Navajo Nation Council can find resolution and determine a path forward to close out the CARES Act programs…”

Baker Tilly was contracted by former Controller Pearline Kirk, an at-will appointee who was removed from her position last month by the Navajo Nation Council after the Department of Justice revealed two sealed criminal charges were filed against her.

Begay, a certified internal auditor and fraud examiner, who retired from her position as auditor general in 2018, was swiftly appointed to serve as acting controller by President Jonathan Nez on May 20.

“With our consultants Baker Tilly that are managing the CARES funds, they put all their tasks on pause,” confirmed Begay. “We have a contract with them that will end Sept. 30, 2021.”

However, Begay also explained that Baker Tilly has evidently “fully expended” their contract amount and is claiming the Nation owes them money.

“…I was told we owe them approximately $2.4 million that we have to basically pay before they can restart their work,” she said.

She’s working with DOJ and the president’s office on how to address that, she said.

Internal audit

Communications Director Jared Touchin confirmed that Nez was briefed and received the same information provided to the B&F Committee.

“We were informed that Baker Tilly was paid $12 million in accordance with a contract that was established under the previous controller,” said Touchin. “We were also informed that the (current) Office of the Controller is conducting an internal audit to help address the matter.”

Additionally, Begay said Baker Tilly has requested another $1 million to reopen the call center to process the “Phase II Hardship Assistance Plan” proposed to provide emergency financial assistance to enrolled Navajo members who have not previously received Hardship assistance.

“We’re in negotiations with them as to how to address this issue of unpaid debt by the controller’s office as well as the additional one million they’re requesting to open up the call center, the portal, the website, and also for them to do the portal reporting and close out reporting for the CARES funds,” said Begay.

In response to an inquiry from the Navajo Times, Baker Tilly Senior Media Strategy Manager Nicole Berkeland said it is Baker Tilly’s policy not to comment on matters involving their clients.
Begay confirmed that at this point all unexpended money from Navajo CARES Act sub-recipients have all been reverted to the Hardship Assistance budget.

“There’s no more money out there floating around from the CARES Act,” Begay told B&F. “Everything is accounted for and we reverted all that to the Hardship Assistance program budget.”

Specifically, Begay reported that $312 million in unspent funds from unfinished Navajo CARES Act projects, contracts and services were reverted to the Hardship Assistance program.

This is in addition to the $49.5 million that originally was budgeted for Hardship Assistance, so a total of $361.5 million ended up in the Hardship pot, representing 51% of the $714 million allocated to the Nation.

Of that $361.5 million, $319.5 million was expended for Hardship Assistance payments to 308,000 Navajos leaving a remaining available balance of $42 million.

Applicants demand answers

Meanwhile, applicants who did not yet receive their Hardship payments have been trying to contact the Baker Tilly help line with no response and have been demanding explanations from Delegates.

“There are applications still pending where people are complaining to leadership that they haven’t received their hardship assistance checks either for $1350 or $450,” said B&F Chairman Jamie Henio. “What’s the status for those people who haven’t received their assistance even though they complied with the application process? It seems they’re in the dark out there in terms of getting answers to the questions that they have.”

Begay said she was told there were about 1,000 applicants who met the deadline but had not provided the necessary documentation, such as their CIB, which has been done since.

“I was informed that they submitted them to Baker Tilly,” she said. “We will be working with Baker Tilly to get that portal and after that we can process the checks for the 1,000 applicants…”

The 9,000 plus applicants who missed the deadline, but completed their applications, will have to be paid from the new legislation, yet to be considered by Council, that will allocate the $42 million in remaining Hardship funds, she said.

“According to the information I received from Baker Tilly, there’s about 9,000 plus applicants that missed the deadline so they were put on the wait-list,” said Begay. “Once we get the portal from Baker Tilly, then we can identify those 9,000 plus applicants.”

Begay recommended the wait-listed applicants who already have their paperwork submitted be prioritized because of the limited amount available in the remaining CARES Hardship pot.

“I believe there’s legislation being drafted to spend that money to the wait-list as well as open it up to the other 90,000 enrolled members of the Navajo Nation that did not apply,” said Begay. “My concern is that we estimated that there’s going to be 90,000 enrolled Navajos that have not applied for the assistance and the $42 million will not accommodate 90,000 Navajos.”

Begay suggested that if the remaining $42 million in Hardship Assistance runs out, Council can probably access American Rescue Plan Act funding to accommodate all of Navajos who did not receive the first round of Hardship Assistance.

ARPA expenditure plan

Separately, a new round of Hardship Assistance through ARPA has been discussed, proposing $2,000 for adults and $1,000 for children, which would also have to be approved by Council and signed by Nez.

“The plan is to assist all enrolled members of the Navajo Nation with the second hardship,” said Begay.

Begay estimated it would take $600 million to accommodate 399,000 enrolled Navajos with a new round of Hardship, or about a third of the $1.8 billion of Navajo ARPA funds.

“We’re going to be working on issuing an RFP for this once we have some kind of guidance on what the expenditure plan for ARPA is,” she said. “I was told there’s a lot of infrastructure projects that will be budgeted under ARPA so we’re working on the RFP on that.”

Begay said she is also working to get a phone support line up and running by this Friday that will be similar to the now closed Baker Tilly assistance line.

“Once we get the line, we can open up a call center that is handled by the OOC,” she said.

B&F Committee member Amber Kanazbah Crotty urged Begay to make a public announcement regarding the information shared in the meeting to clear up any confusion.

“I’m thinking there should be some more community education, a press release, and more communication out to the public just so they know that they’re not forgotten,” said Crotty.


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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