WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. is on administrative leave with pay following the Tribal Council's vote Monday to forward an investigation of seven elected officials and division heads to the Navajo attorney general.

The emergency legislation, sponsored by Blue Gap/Whippoorwill Delegate Raymond Joe, went before delegates one week after they heard in closed session legal reports concerning ongoing investigations and alleged ethical, civil and criminal violations arising from the Nation's contracts with OnSat Network Communications and the Shiprock-based Biochemical Decontamination Systems.

A reported 81 of 88 delegates signed a petition last week in favor of a special session to consider the proposed action.

The 48-22 vote Monday, which came after nearly three hours of discussion during a special session, means Vice President Ben Shelly will take over as the Nation's top executive.

"Now is a very hard time for our government," Shelly said after the vote. "The issues are very sensitive, but we must work together, both legislative and executive branches, to move our government forward."

Shelly originally was listed among those to be placed on leave, but an amendment made from the floor Monday eliminated from the legislation his name and all references to the vice president's office.

The amendment, proposed by Shonto, Ariz., Delegate Jonathan Nez, passed with a 58-10 vote. Nez argued that Shelly's name never came up in any of the legal reports. Shelly entered tribal chambers Monday afternoon after learning his name no longer appeared on the legislation.

"The people voted us in and we must protect their interests," he said after the vote. "It is our responsibility to act in good faith to protect the (Nation)."

A second change from the original bill was the omission of Navajo Controller Mark Grant's name. Grant was one of seven additional individuals named for the continued investigation along with the president and vice president. No explanation was provided about the change.

Named for investigation and possible prosecution also were the president's chief of staff Patrick Sandoval; Allan Begay, director of the Division of Economic Development; Arbin Mitchell, director of the Division of Community Development; Samson Cowboy, director of the Division of Public Safety; former Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie; and Ernest Franklin, former employee with the Division of Community Development.

The Nation entered into a $1.9 million contract with the Utah-based OnSat Network Communications in 2001. OnSat agreed to provide satellite Internet services to all 110 chapters on the Nation, but service was disrupted after the tribe stopped making payments, claiming the company overbilled for services.

The Nation owns 51 percent of Biochemical Decontamination Systems, or BCDS, a corporation created to seek federal contracts for the sale of metal fabrication products.

The Nation in 2006 approved using the Navajo Dam Escrow Fund to back a $2.2 million loan to finance an expansion of the plant. But by 2008, the company was defunct and $4.7 million in debt.

Yazzie admitted to accepting about $50,000 in consulting fees for walking Hak Ghun, CEO of BCDS, through the loan applications.

Approval of the bill Monday came despite claims of the illegality of such a move and other serious concerns.

Leading the vocal dissenters was Leonard Tsosie, delegate for the Torreon, Pueblo Pintado and Whitehorse Lake chapters. Tsosie called multiple times for the legislation to be thrown out and questioned the "dignity and integrity" of the proceedings.

Tsosie also cautioned the Council about the cost of an investigation. The Nation already spent $500,000 on the legal reports, he said, and it can expect an additional $2 million bill for review or prosecution.

"I do not wish to participate in this," Tsosie said of the vote. "It amounts to undoing an election. We are going against the peoples' choice."

Tsosie voted against the bill.

Other dissenters include Shiprock Delegate Pete Ken Atcitty, who called the Council a tribunal and said he wanted those accused to have the opportunity to defend themselves. Atcitty voted against the bill.

Upper Fruitland Chapter Delegate LoRenzo Bates also voted against the legislation, saying he preferred leaving the government intact during an investigation. He faulted legislative language stating the president would be removed during the investigation to "prevent the Navajo Nation president and vice president from obstructing or otherwise interfering with the investigation."

"When you look at this, in my mind it makes an assumption that the president is going to interfere," Bates said. He urged delegates to vote on a forthcoming legislation that would allow Shirley to stay in office.

"It would be the same situation, but we'd keep the president on," he said.

Other delegates spoke in favor of the bill, claiming that allowing the justice system to work would help the Nation maintain its integrity.

"During the reports, there were several people that were named or alleged," bill sponsor Raymond Joe said. "Those were just allegations. If we refer the whole case to the attorney general, we can let him clear them if they did no wrong."

Shiprock Delegate Leonard Anthony voted in favor of the bill, as did George Arthur, who represents the San Juan, Nenahnezad and Burnham chapters. Shiprock delegate GloJean Todacheene recused herself from the discussion and the vote because of a family connection to BCDS.

The Navajo attorney general has 60 days to review the case and make a recommendation to a special prosecutor.

The president's suspension brings up concerns about the upcoming government reform vote, scheduled for Dec. 15, in which the public is expected to vote on two of Shirley's initiatives: to reduce the Council size from 88 delegates to 24 and to give the president line-item veto power.

It is unclear how the Nation will proceed with the Navajo Supreme Court's order to hold the election this year.

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com