Ousted NAPI CEO not surprised by board decision

James Fenton
Former Navajo Agricultural Products Industry chief executive officer Tsosie Lewis speaks during an interview Friday at The Daily Times office in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – Tsosie Lewis, the ousted CEO of Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, said he saw his termination coming.

Lewis, 65, said in an interview at The Daily Times on Friday that his Nov. 13 firing was possibly due to conflicts between his office and NAPI's board of directors.

"Our objectives may have been different," Lewis said.

The day Lewis was terminated, he said the board held a special all-day meeting in NAPI's boardroom. Late in the day, he was called to appear before the board, where he was terminated.

Lewis' firing took less than 15 minutes, and he was not given anything in writing, he said.

"'Today's your last day, Mr. Lewis,' they told me," he said. "I expected that. I wasn't going to fight it."

Lewis said that until he is able to see something in writing regarding his contract as CEO, he would withhold judgement over his termination.

"Since I don't have (anything in writing) before me, I have to give them the wisdom that they based their decision on facts," Lewis said. "I accepted it. I don't know the rationale (over whether) I don't have a contract or my contract wasn't renewed. The (NAPI) attorney has that. I don't know. I can't make a comment on it simply because I haven't seen it. There was no letter given to me. I have to respect that."

A two-sentence press release from NAPI said Lewis' last day of employment with NAPI was Nov. 13.

"The NAPI board of directors announces that today is Mr. Tsosie Lewis' last day of employment with (NAPI). Mr. Lionel Haskie has accepted the position of interim (CEO)," the release said.

Navajo Agricultural Products Industry headquarters is pictured in August 2014.

Haskie, who is also NAPI's operations and maintenance manager, said in a Nov. 13 interview that Lewis was worthy of praise as a CEO.

"I've always enjoyed working with Tsosie, and hearing about the changes and challenges that NAPI has experienced, and always enjoyed seeing that he brought NAPI out of debt and made it a profitable place for people like me to work," Haskie said in a Nov. 13 interview.

Lewis said that his contract wasn't up for reconsideration until 2021.

The previous NAPI board renewed Lewis's contract as CEO at the agribusiness in 2011, giving him a 10-year deal at an annual salary of $175,000, he said. The board chairman in 2011 was Edward T. Begay.

Current board chairwoman Jeannie Y. Benally did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.

Lewis said that the tribal entity's board, which typically consists of five members, has been without a fifth member to represent the Chinle Agency for more than a year.

Board members represent three of the five Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies, which were established in the early years of the Navajo Nation. The three are the Chinle Agency at Chinle and the Western Navajo Agency at Tuba City — both in Arizona — and the Eastern Navajo Agency at Crownpoint.

The other two board members represent District 13 (Burnham, Upper Fruitland, Nenahnezad and San Juan) and District 19 (Nageezi and Huerfano).

Along with board chairwoman Benally, the current board includes Lawrence R. Platero of Tohajiilee , Veronica Desbah Tso of Bloomfield and Kyril Calsoyas of Flagstaff, Ariz.

When reached by phone, Tso, who represents District 19, referred all requests for information about the board or its decision over Lewis to Benally.

"I can't disclose any information," Tso said.

Roselyn Yazzie, who was NAPI's chief operating officer, appears to have been demoted around the same time Lewis was terminated. Yazzie is now listed on the NAPI website as bean crop manager, a position she held prior to becoming NAPI COO.

Lewis said that he had mostly appreciation for many people during his 43 years at NAPI.

He singled out Emery Chee and Wilson Skeet, two men who interviewed him when he came to NAPI in the early 1970s, he said. In 1974, Lewis was hired as a livestock manager and held various roles at NAPI until taking over as CEO in 2002.

He saved special thanks for NAPI employees.

"As they say, 'To be a good leader, you need good people to stand with you,'" Lewis said. "The workers, they know who they are. I take my hat off to them. It was not always about me. It was about the work force. They stood behind me as we moved the company forward."

Navajo Agricultural Products Industry facilities are pictured in August 2014.

Lewis said that he will stay busy.

"I didn't get an education to sit at home," he said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com.