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Shiprock students walk home from school Friday. Although there are first class facilities in the Central Consolidated School District, many schools in other districts serving Navajo students are in dire need of improvements and funding, leading to criticism of tribal leaders and school board participants who spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent travel to Hawaii.
The U.S. Department of the Interior continues to investigate the travel by hundreds of Navajo representatives to Hawaii last October, with federal officials in California now involved in the review.

Meanwhile, other branches of the federal government itself have failed to comply with the Freedom of Information law after confirming they received requests for data they already might have regarding the number of people sent or the source of funds used for the trips.

The Daily Times reported in its Nov. 3 edition that 362 people with ties to the Navajo Nation each paid the $400 preregistration cost to attend the 2007 National Indian Education Association conference in Honolulu. Most are believed to have attended, with many more registering on site. The combined price tag for the trip is believed to be as much as $1 million, based on the costs for those known to have attended.

Supporters of the travel argue it was worth the money to represent the tribe and bring home ideas for teaching American Indian students, but critics have blasted tribal and education leaders for not sending fewer representatives to do the job. Much of the cost is known to have involved federal taxpayer money or tribal funds that could have gone to other needs.

The Navajo Nation sent more than five times the people than any other American Indian tribe, and the representatives included tribal officials, school board members and, in some cases, parents who tagged along.

After learning about The Daily Times reports, U.


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S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., prompted the federal investigation in November when he called for an inquiry into whether federal dollars were misappropriated or misused.

The Department of the Interior sent a letter last week to Domenici, stating the investigation has progressed to the Sacramento, Calif., office, where staff members are reviewing the facts.

"The Sacramento office is in the process of contacting various parties, including the Navajo Nation, the American Indian Association and the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Domenici spokesman Chris Gallegos said. "The inspector general gave us assurance that he would keep us up to date."

The Daily Times sent Freedom of Information Act requests in November to the federal offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Education, asking for the number of people sent to the conference, number of federal dollars used to pay for the trip and the government agency that oversees American Indian spending.

The 20-day deadline, as stated in the Freedom of Information Act, expired last month.

Both offices confirmed receipt of the requests, but neither provided information.

"According to our records, we are 13 days overdue," Bennie Jessup, management and program analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, said Wednesday.

Jessup said the request was delivered to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but the office has failed to provide the information.

"The information is pending," Jessup said. "We're backlogged with requests, and the research can take a long time, but we're working on it."

Laura Kipp, FOIA coordinator in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, did not return phone calls.

The response from the Department of Education was similar. FOIA Coordinator Laura Cloud confirmed her office received the request Nov. 15, but the information is not yet available.

Daily Times Editor Troy Turner said there is a two-fold reason for the federal FOI requests to be answered and for the inspector general's work to produce some type of results.

"Most of the reader reaction to this ongoing story, by far, has come from Navajo tribal members themselves who are extremely upset and demand better accountability of their leaders and school board members," Turner said. "The readers complain that money intended for school children and countless other needs is being wasted, and they complain that nobody else seems to care about how to ensure better accountability.

"Thus the two goals: establish clear accountability, and perhaps ensure better procedures with the realization that this kind of money can be better spent while still serving the education mission."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com