"If federal dollars were misappropriated or misused in any way related to this conference in Hawaii, then appropriate action must be taken," Domenici said in a letter to Inspector General Earl Devancy from the Department of Interior.
The Daily Times first reported in its Nov. 3 edition that 362 people claiming ties to the Navajo Nation preregistered at a cost of $400 each to attend the American Indian Education Association conference in Hawaii during October. Most are believed to have attended, with many more signing up on site. The number of preregistered Navajo was more than five times the tally of any other tribe sending representatives.
Although some of the travelers may have gone at their own expense, many are known to have used Navajo government money or federal funds intended for schools. The story set off a firestorm of reader response, largely from upset Navajo tribal members demanding better use of the money intended for schoolchildren and from taxpayers demanding better accountability.
Numerous attempts by The Daily Times to clarify the list of school board members and Navajo government officials who traveled have led to few results, although at least 18 of the Nation's 88 legislative council members are known to have traveled, as well as Navajo President Joe Shirley and his wife.
The newspaper has sent out 147 Freedom of Information requests as of Friday to Navajo and federal government officials, as well as to school administrators throughout New Mexico and Arizona, including school districts on the Navajo Nation reservation that act independent of the Navajo government. The entities have at least 20 working days, by law, to respond.
Teachers who contacted The Daily Times, but who feared having the newspaper use their names because of political fallback that could cost them their jobs, said that a large number of school board members, not teachers, made the trip, and that there is much resentment about the money not being spent on the schools themselves and on student needs such as after-school programs, tutoring and supplies.
Because the Navajo Nation is considered a sovereign nation, many of its records and documents are not subject to the same scrutiny as other state and federal offices that must adhere to open-records law. Attempts to reach President Shirley were denied by his spokesman, George Hardeen, who told one reporter he would no longer help the newspaper.
However, Hardeen himself posted a response on the Navajo Nation official Web site, and the column was published last Sunday in The Daily Times. In it, Hardeen criticized the newspaper and accused it of "what is called a fishing expedition.'"
The purpose of the story, he wrote, "was not so much to inform as it was to make the Navajo Nation, its educators and its president look wasteful, look frivolous and look bad."
The newspaper questioned why fewer representatives from both the schools and the government could not have traveled and produced the same results from the conference, and if the money spent would have been better served going to student programs and needs. It criticized Shirley's office for not providing leadership in better coordinating the tribe's representation, and for his lack of response to calls for better accountability and management.
Domenici said he wants answers, and he was careful to refrain from making judgment until learning more about it.
On Friday, the senator said he made a personal phone call to Shirley to discuss the matter and to request that the Navajo Nation make all information about the trip a matter of public record.
"I am concerned that those who represent the Navajo people have not accounted for this trip," Domenici said in a conversation with The Daily Times on Friday afternoon.
He said Shirley thanked him for his concern and promised to look more closely into the matter.
Domenici's letter to Inspector General Devaney also talked about the need for accountability.
"The Daily Times has made repeated requests for specific information from the Navajo Nation regarding this issue. My staff has also been in touch with the Navajo Nation Washington office. This past week, the Navajo Nation issued a formal statement in response to the allegations.
"The response unfortunately was not substantive and has only served to fuel the fire in response to the allegations," Domenici wrote to Devaney.
"Accordingly, I am requesting that your office review this material and take appropriate action in accordance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations. It is important that The Daily Times be held accountable for their reporting and that the Navajo Nation also is held accountable for their actions. If federal dollars were misappropriated or misused in any way related to this conference in Hawaii, then appropriate action must be taken."