Hopi Vice Chairman, Council accused of misuse of funds exceeding $113,000

FLAGSTAFF-The circumstances surrounding Hopi Tribal Chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa, Vice Chairman Todd Honyaoma Sr. and the Hopi Tribal Council continue to complicate.

On Nov. 19, Chairman Nuvamsa charged the Office of the Vice Chairman and the Hopi Tribal Council with misappropriation of funds, stating that the vice chairman and council acted illegally by hiring an attorney to represent the vice chairman in his legal defense in Benjamin H. Nuvamsa v. Todd Honyaoma Sr. et al.

According to Nuvamsa, the initial installment paid to attorney Erin Byrnes was taken from the Hopi Tribal Public Emergency Services/Safety Budget. This payment was $75,458.56-money the Hopi Tribe can ill afford, Nuvamsa stated in a Nov. 28 press conference held at Little America Hotel.

Nuvamsa's review of an "improperly processed" Budget Modification revealed that the total may exceed $113,000.

The hiring of Byrnes and the appropriation of funds to pay for her services was done without formal Tribal Council resolution or a properly approved contract, Nuvamsa went on to say during the press conference.

"When I ran for Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, I committed to the Hopi and Tewa People that I would run an open, transparent and accountable government," Nuvamsa said. "Consistent with that commitment, I want to maintain an open and candid relationship with the press."

Nuvamsa v. Honyaoma, Hopi Trial Court Case N. 2007-CV-0068, was filed by Nuvamsa and others for "illegally spearheading the nullification of the recent general election and for illegally preventing my staff and I from performing the duties of this office," Nuvamsa said.

The Court ruled Aug. 27 that the Council Resolution nullifying the election was illegal and unconstitutional and was therefore "null and void."

This ruling resulted in the arrest of Honyaoma and Mary Felter, the Tribal secretary for contempt of court-and more recently, the Court also ruled that "In the present matter, the Hopi Tribe and the Hopi Tribal Council are not parties," Nuvamsa went on to explain.

As such, expenditure of tribal money to pay attorney fees is a serious misappropriation of funds.

Honyaoma's actions, including a Sept. 26 memo directing the tribe's finance director to take a not-to exceed amount of $50,000 from the Public Emergency Services Budget to pay Byrnes, as well as his approval of a Standard Budget Modification Request Form without Nuvamsa's approval, are illegal, Nuvamsa declared.

"This is theft of tribal funds," Nuvamsa said. "Council members cannot use tribal funds for their personal defense. I am glad that the Court clarified that the Tribal Council was never a party to this suit. This means no tribal funds can be used to pay for any cost associated with this case.

"The Hopi Tribal Government must work for the Hopi people, not for the benefit of a small handful of aggressive and influential politicians with their own personal agendas," Nuvamsa continued.

Nuvamsa declared his top priority as the establishment of a stable, functional, cooperative government that puts the best interests of the Hopi and Tewa people first.

"As public servants, our first goal is to restore confidence in the government and to take the lead in bringing the entire Tribal Council, Vice Chairman's Office, Chairman's Office and all tribal offices back into a cooperative alignment that will make us a family again," Nuvamsa said.

When asked by the press what actions the Hopi Tribe would take on this matter, Nuvamsa indicated that the matter would first be addressed at the local level using Hopi Tribal Law, and if appropriate, also addressed in federal court.

Nuvamsa sited federal statute 18 USC 1163, which addresses theft, embezzlement and theft of tribal and federal funds, saying that he was prepared to go to any length to account for the funds. He has already contacted Hopi Tribal law enforcement, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe's trust agent, he said.

Nuvamsa explained the precarious state of the Hopi tribal budget especially in light of the closure of the Black Mesa coal operations, which had provided 50 percent of the tribe's operating budget.

"That was two years ago," Nuvamsa said. "We failed to cut our budget, and we are facing a $7 million deficit for 2007. We are going into 2008 facing a huge budget deficit."

This means that the Hopi Tribe will be facing a hard decision in the future, Nuvamsa said-whether or not to reduce the budget.

"The economic picture does not look good at Hopi," Nuvamsa said, explaining that the tribe has avoided layoffs so far.

"There is a concern that jobs are hard to come by-we don't want to lay off our employees-and therefore have had to dip into the account [under BIA management] in Albuquerque," Nuvamsa said. "We need to bring our expenditures to a reasonable level. Unfortunately we are at a point where we need to make a decision."

The account that Nuvamsa referred to is a BIA Office of Trust Funds account consisting of royalties, permits, leases and fees are deposited into that account.

There is $33 million in the account, Nuvamsa said, but this could quickly be depleted. The tribe has approximately 500 employees, and this year, the annual operating budget for the Tribe is $22.5 million-the Hopi people are facing a critical deficit, and the funds misappropriated by Honyaoma could be used for a justified need, Nuvamsa continued.

"These funds are basically stolen from the people," he said.

Nuvamsa explained that his office has received encouragement from many Hopi and Tewa people to continue, and that his efforts to remain in office are not personal. Efforts to remove him from office have to date been unsuccessful, but have left a long-term effect on the Hopi and Tewa people.

"I believe these actions serve to divert our attention from achieving anything in office," Nuvamsa said. "As I speak here today, the Council is holding a meeting to oust the current Election Board. There has been an attempt to stack the appellate court, and they tried to do that today with the Election Board. Today's meeting was called illegally, and any action from this meeting has no standing."

The election board was indeed removed from office.

Other issues

Nuvamsa said that there were bigger issues that deserved the administration's attention such as water, land and social issues.

There were good things to report as well; Nuvamsa spoke about progress made towards establishing a tribal elderly car facility to serve the needs of Hopi elderly at home.

He also spoke about efforts to lease 900 gaming machines, which would have the potential of bringing millions of dollars in revenue to the Hopi Tribe without having to open a casino.

Further, Nuvamsa is dedicated making the Hopi language a requirement in all schools on the reservation.

Finally, he spoke of plans to open a regulated jail designed to serve the Hopi people as well as Navajo and other tribes, the cities of Winslow and Holbrook, the Bureau of Prisons and Homeland Security. The renting of beds in this facility, established on Hopi land, would also bring in much-needed revenue to the people of Hopi and Tewa.

"We must treat these efforts as a business venture-while creating jobs for our people," Nuvamsa continued.

"We must also address constitutional reform," he said. "Our Constitution needs updating, and we've already been working on this."

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