‘Let me do my job’: Controller says office being targeted, politicized
As expected, many conversations in Window Rock are about who is going to manage the large amount of money coming to the Navajo Nation through the American Rescue Plan Act, and who will oversee the administration of projects.
No matter how you slice it, it is going to be a gargantuan task that needs to be done in a coordinated fashion and in compliance with federal regulations.
During an April 27 Naabik’íyáti’ Committee ARPA work session, Diné Development Corp. put forth a detailed proposal to be the lead project manager for ARPA and to help the controller’s office administer the funds.
DDC officials outlined their years of experience and success in managing federal IT and professional services contracts and emphasized the need for unity and collaboration.
“As a Navajo-owned entity, Diné Development Corporation was summoned to assist the Navajo government to develop an efficient and transparent strategy in response to the American Rescue Plan Act,” DDC Chief Executive Officer Austin Tsosie said on Monday.
“DDC’s efforts were undertaken with one goal – to collaborate with the Navajo Nation government in order to maximize the benefits to the Navajo Nation,” he said.
However, after the presentation, Controller Pearline Kirk indicated she felt put on the spot and “pressured” as a turf battle emerged and she questioned DDC’s credentials.
“I feel like DDC has no experience,” she said. “Now they want to help me manage ARPA funds. They don’t know how the Navajo Nation works.”
Kirk appeared to take offense to the Navajo Nation Council’s invitation to DDC to present its ARPA proposal, indicating that the “rhetoric” being spewed by other leaders was that the controller’s office “has failed in some ways,” thus prompting the need for other entities to step up and help.
“Some of the things being discussed are a little problematic for my office,” said Kirk. “I am really offended because I feel like I’m being attacked because of my decision making. I feel like my office is currently being targeted. Maybe it’s politicized.”
Tsosie told Navajo Times it was unfortunate that negative comments were made by the controller during the public work session.
“The viewpoints of the Navajo Nation controller regarding DDC’s capabilities were made in a manner that is counterproductive to the encouragement of growth and endorsement of tribal corporations,” he said.
Furthermore, the dismissal of DDC’s successes by the controller were not only harmful to the reputation established by employees of DDC, said Tsosie, but also ignored the tenets of “k’e.
Tsosie defended DDC, saying the company is well-versed in the navigation of federal funds, including “seeking and winning of federal contracts, reporting spending of all federal funds as mandated by federal guidelines, and having unqualified/unmodified audits of all federal funds received.”
“To refer to DDC as unqualified in assisting with the efficient and transparent administration of federal funds is a bold, uninformed statement,” said Tsosie.
“DDC Board of Directors and leadership team remain confident that the company is capable of providing assistance and promoting new ideas utilizing capabilities gained over the past 17 years,” he said.
‘I follow the law’
Kirk vehemently defended the work of her office as well as the consultants and Certified Public Accounting firms she has hired to help administer the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds in 2020.
“I’m here to say I feel like our office did a tremendous job given the tight deadlines, the lack of Treasury guidance, as well as doing our regular jobs,” said Kirk.
“We’re on target to close the books on time,” she said. “Our audits are on target. We administered $714 million dollars on top of the $400 million that we normally administer and a $200 million operating budget.”
She also defended her record on hiring Navajo companies, including Navajo consultants and a Navajo CPA firm, Noon and Associates, to augment the work of her office.
“It’s a little bit insulting because I’m a Navajo,” said Kirk. “I follow the law. Last I checked, the responsibility of administering the OOC and hiring falls on me.”
She stood by her decision to hire the non-Native CPA firm Baker Tilly (still retained), saying she followed Navajo procurement law to do so and the company had all of the right qualifications. Furthermore, Baker Tilly hired 40 Navajo workers, she said.
“Baker Tilly had the resources, the experience and the technical knowledge to help us, which they did,” she said. “They did a great job.”
Even though the DDC presentation was in the context of a work session, not a business negotiation, Kirk told Council delegates she was extremely uncomfortable discussing potential contractors in a public forum and said she felt she was being pressured through political influence to hire DDC.
“We are taking restricted federal dollars and we’re trying to put a square peg into a round whole that somehow they (DDC) can help OOC and then we’re going to make them like Baker Tilly,” she said.
In an April 28 follow-up press release, Kirk said that what seemingly should have been an administrative matter of proper procurement became “a public display of political pressure” to consider hiring DDC to help manage the federal funds.
On April 30, Speaker Seth Damon issued a press release which questioned the controller’s understanding of the Naabik’íyáti’ work session’s intent and denied the accusation that Navajo leadership was attempting to influence her office through political means.
“At no point did the Naabik’íyáti’ Committee put these proposals in a request or demand of any form and give that to the controller, said Damon.
“Navajo leadership’s continuous advocacy for all Navajo businesses in the way the Navajo Nation procures goods and services is known at all levels of government,” he said. “It is even the position of the Navajo Nation itself to give preference to Navajo businesses in these contracts.”
Taking delegates aback, Kirk had also suggested that DDC potentially paying dividends back to the Nation through securing ARPA contracts could be akin to “money laundering.”
“During the work session, the controller compared some of the ideas put forward as ‘money laundering’ and implied Navajo leadership was pressuring the controller into violating procurement laws, responded Damon.
“It needs to be stated clearly, particularly for any auditing entity or member of the public out there, that they are free to request the Navajo Nation’s financial records through the controller’s office under Navajo law,” he said. “We, as a Nation, have been and will continue to be as transparent as possible in this process.”
Tsosie explained that as part of the company’s dividend return model, DDC is mandated by its charter to pay dividends to the Navajo Nation based upon any profits gained.
“The controller’s referral as ‘money laundering’ illustrates a lack of understanding and knowledge of this process,” said Tsosie. “These statements of misunderstandings could have been resolved with the acceptance of numerous invitations to Ms. Kirk that went unanswered.
Tsosie said until a productive meeting occurs between DDC and the controller, the public will “continue to bear witness to Ms. Kirk’s lack of understanding of DDC and its purpose.”
Regardless, Tsosie said DDC will continue to offer its assistance to divisions of the Navajo Nation that “see the value of its expertise for the benefit of us all.”
In balance, Kirk did say if there is an opportunity for DDC to “come in and do something,” she will consider it.
“We support our Navajo businesses and enterprises given they have the required documentation, requirements and experience,” she said. “That goes for any enterprise. Let me do my job. Let me do my RFP.”
Kirk told delegates that she does her best not to be political because her office is supposed to be independent, objective and free of political influence because with “money matters, all sorts of scary things happen,” she said.
She reminded the Naabik’íyáti’ Committee that it is her office that is ultimately responsible for purchasing, financial compliance, and the transparent management of all funds on behalf of the Navajo Nation to ensure funds are spent according to laws passed by the Council and approved by the leadership.
“All I’m doing right now is trying to keep the Nation out of trouble because we are dealing with restricted federal funds with a lot of rules,” said Kirk. “All I’m trying to do is keep people from wearing orange jumpsuits at the end of the day. I don’t want audit findings. Those are my job responsibilities. I take them very seriously.”
The mention of “orange jumpsuits” also caught everyone’s attention as Kirk proceeded to urge delegates to be mindful of federal regulations.
“All eyes are on us and how we treat these federal dollars,” said Kirk. “It is not our money. It’s the American taxpayers’ money…”
In her press release, Kirk went on to say her office has consistently received intense pressure and opposition from Navajo Nation leadership, chapters, programs, and communities to provide preference in certain matters like hiring, procuring and distribution of funds in a manner contradicting Navajo and federal law.
“Then and even now, we are receiving pitches and directives to hire certain contractors or entities with ties to members of leadership,” said Kirk.
“Not only does this violate the federal compliance requirements that accompany this federal funding, namely procurement protocols, it also violates Title XII of the Navajo Nation Code and the professional standards that the controller must adhere to,” she said.
Finally, the position of the controller is a job very few want, said Kirk, as it frequently involves denying requests and having to say “no,” even to leadership, in order to remain compliant with federal regulations.
“Nonetheless, our office continues to hold this stance of denying when needed despite threats and measures taken to lessen or remove us as an obstacle, said Kirk.
“I am confident in our staff and our current consultants, and we stand ready to receive the incoming ARPA funds and to ensure the funds are spent according to the intent of the U.S. Congress free and clear of political influence,” she said.