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Tribal hearing officer rules against Navajo Nation presidential hopeful Chris Deschene

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — A tribal hearing officer ruled against Chris Deschene on Thursday, a setback that could remove the Navajo Nation presidential candidate from ballots in the general election.

Deschene said he plans to appeal the decision and continue his bid for the office.

In a hearing Thursday morning at the Office of Hearings and Appeals in Window Rock, Ariz., Deschene faced questions from attorneys for two petitioners, former presidential candidates Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, intended to test his fluency in the Navajo language.

Tsosie and Whitethorne filed grievances last month against Deschene, accusing him of lying on candidacy paperwork about his ability to speak the Navajo language fluently, a requirement for presidential candidates.

Deschene repeatedly refused to answer questions on Thursday, only answering to say that he felt the questions were unprecedented and unfair.

Richie Nez, the Office of Hearings and Appeals chief hearing officer, said he had no choice but to rule against Deschene.

"I will enter a default judgment against Mr. Deschene," Nez said. "I've been pushed into a corner."

In a prepared statement, Deschene said, "Immediately following the decision, we began drafting our motion to reconsider. We will consider appealing to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, if necessary."

The 43-year-old, who grew up in LeChee, Ariz., has 10 days to appeal the decision with the tribal Supreme Court.

Thursday's hearing was scheduled after the tribal Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 26 to return Deschene's case to the lower court.

Deschene finished second to former president Joe Shirley Jr. in the Aug. 26 primary election with 9,831 votes. Shirley received 11,052 votes.

"This is elementary. It's simple conversation. It's simple knowledge he's being asked," said Whitethorne's attorney, Justin Jones, after Deschene gave the same answer several times throughout the morning hearing. "There's something very ethically wrong here."

Alternating between Navajo and English, Jones tried to get Deschene to answer questions in the Navajo language, from identifying his clan to explaining how laws are made in tribal government.

Deschene refused to say any more than he was being tested by an attorney who was not qualified to assess his fluency with the Navajo language.

"I protest, and I object to your questioning. He's testing me, and it's not right. That is in English for your understanding," Deschene said of Jones. "He's not an expert. This test is a result of Mr. Jones and Mr. Whitethorne's. He's not an expert. He's a 15th place loser, so I respectfully decline to put myself in front of the whole world to answer a test that has not been vetted, that has not been approved, not been tested, standardized, and moreover not been applied to other elected officials."

Absentee ballots for the Nov. 4 election went out on Monday. Ballots will continue to be printed with Deschene's name on them, according to Kimmeth Yazzie, Navajo Election Administration program and projects specialist.

"We're moving forward as scheduled unless we get something in writing from the OHA that says otherwise," Yazzie said. "We're driving in the fog."

The Election Administration board of directors will hold a special meeting on Monday to discuss the Office of Hearings and Appeals' ruling.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.