At least two former Bureau of Indian Education employees are filing federal lawsuits against the government agency, claiming officials in the Shiprock Education Line Office frivolously spent more than $100,000 meant for students with disabilities.

Former employees also are charging officials with racial and sexual harassment, hostile work environments and wrongful termination — conditions that arose after they questioned appropriation of funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Gwen Francis, of Farmington, filed a federal lawsuit last month, claiming she was terminated after learning of a Tiis Nazbas Community School student who was not getting the services detailed on his Individualized Education Plan.

Francis' lawsuit names Shiprock Education Line Officer Joel Longie, who oversees 13 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, and Michael Aaron, principal of Tiis Nazbas Community School in Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. She is asking for a $2.5 million settlement.

Francis was working as special education coordinator at the school in August when she learned of a teen diagnosed with a mental illness, she said. The teen's individual education plan called for home intervention, but Francis said the school failed to provide personnel or a counselor.

"His mom was coming to me saying her son was scared and didn't want to come to school," Francis said of the teen. "I just wanted the school to have a meeting for the student and address his disability.


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The school did not have a special education teacher available to make home visits, Francis said. The teen went to school, but his symptoms worsened, and he was admitted into an Albuquerque hospital in October.

The teen's mother confirmed the hospitalization, but she is a Bureau of Indian Education employee and is prohibited from talking to the press.

Francis wrote a letter to Longie and Aaron, stating the school and the Bureau of Indian Affairs must bear some of the responsibility. She was terminated Oct. 19, and Longie subsequently sealed Francis's office and destroyed her documents, one of Longie's staff assistants said.

Francis also is accusing Longie of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, claiming he made repeated and unsolicited sexual advances and publicly humiliated her when she didn't reciprocate.

After Francis filed a Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint under the Bureau of Indian Education, Longie put Francis on a performance improvement plan. He moved her from the Shiprock office to the Tohaali and Tiis Nazbas schools, forcing her to drive more than two extra hours per day, Francis said. It was then she learned of what she believes is the misappropriation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds.

Francis has a master's degree in educational leadership and worked as a special education teacher for 12 years in the Farmington and Central Consolidated School districts.

A second complaint

Susanna Turose, of Mancos, Colo., is filing a similar lawsuit this week — one year after learning about what she believes is a deficiency of $100,000 in the budget for the special education department at Red Rock Day School in Red Valley, Ariz.

Turose, former acting principal of Red Rock Day School, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in August 2006, claiming her salary was cut by nearly $6 per hour. After she complained, Longie removed Turose from the position and sent her to Tiis Nazbas Community School to work as a special education teacher. Turose was fired at the end of the school year, after a 16-year career in education. The school made no effort to replace her, she said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' Equal Employment Opportunity office further was inhibited from investigating Turose's case. A counselor assigned to the case said she was threatened and stonewalled when she attempted to interview and investigate. She also was told she would not be paid for the time it took to investigate the case. The counselor refused to be named for fear of retaliation.

Turose is filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, charging Longie, business technician Esther Mark and Red Rock Day School Principal Leo Johnson with racial discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination. 

Longie did not return numerous Daily Times phone calls.

Feds investigating feds

Michael Gaddy, a spokesman for Bureau of Indian Education employees, contacted U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M, demanding an investigation. Gaddy is representing Turose and Francis, as well as at least two current Bureau of Indian Education employees who fear their jobs are in danger.

"There exists in the Northern Navajo Agency discrimination, harassment, intimidation and threats to the adult staff along with criminal misappropriation of federally mandated funds and gross mismanagement," Gaddy claimed. "The greatest crime is that being perpetrated on the children, especially those with special needs."

Peter Valencia, Udall's constituent services representative, forwarded the complaints in November to the U.S. Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The agency has not replied, Valencia said.

The Daily Times' calls to Jaqueline Cheek, director of the U.S. Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, went unreturned.

"The case is open, and we're waiting for a response," Valencia said. "When a constituent comes in with a complaint, it's taken seriously, and we seriously need a response back."

Valencia said the office almost always responds to congressional inquiries, but he hasn't heard from them since November.

"We sent it officially by letter, with official letterhead," he said. "If we give them enough time, hopefully they will respond."

Domenici's office confirmed receipt of the complaints, but said no action has been taken.

Gaddy also filed complaints with the Farmington office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI reviewed the information, then turned the case over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for an internal investigation, spokesman Darrin Jones said.

"We did receive the information, but we no longer have an open investigation," he said. "We referred it to the BIA."

BIE Acting Director Kevin Skenandore said his office would not comment on the investigation.

"It is not appropriate for me to respond to personnel-related issues," he said.

Gaddy called the management of the case a conflict of interest. Government entities often begin investigations with internal inquiries, but when officials are allowed to investigate themselves and terminate the people who filed complaints, something needs to change, he said.

"It's absolutely absurd," he said. "Here we have two federal agencies empowered and tasked to conduct investigations of misappropriations of taxpayer dollars. Both are provided with credible allegations, witnesses to be contacted and offers to provide documentation to prove the allegations. Both agencies then turn over their investigations to the government agency accused of wrongdoing."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com