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FARMINGTON — The board of directors for Navajo Agricultural Products Industry did not renew CEO Tsosie Lewis' contract, board President Jeannie Y. Benally said Monday, but she declined to say what prompted the action.

"He had a contract that was not renewed by the board," Benally said in a phone interview regarding Lewis' termination as CEO of the Navajo Nation agribusiness.

When asked why Tsosie's contract had not been renewed, the connection went dead. Repeated followup calls to Benally were not answered on Monday.

A two-sentence press release issued by NAPI late Friday said that Lewis' "last day of employment" with NAPI was Friday and Lionel Haskie, NAPI operations and maintenance manager, "accepted the position of Interim (CEO)."

In 1974, Lewis was hired as a livestock manager  and held various roles at NAPI until taking over as CEO in 2002, according to the NAPI website before it took down Lewis' biography Monday afternoon and replaced it with Haskie's photo, his new title of interim CEO and the words "More information to come."

Haskie, a 39-year-old native of Sanostee, has been with NAPI for five years and has also been chairman of the entity's management committee since 2012.

In a phone interview late Monday as he drove to Albuquerque to catch a flight to Washington D.C. to meet with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials over the agribusiness' NIIP, or Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, Haskie said he was surprised to be chosen for the interim role. He said "various staff" at NAPI recommended him for the interim role.

As the entity begins a search for a permanent CEO, Haskie said it was too early to say whether he would pursue the CEO position at NAPI.

"It's too early to say," Haskie said. "Today was my first day. I haven't yet processed thinking of taking this on as a permanent role. I don't know."

Haskie said he had only praise for Lewis.

"I expressed the highest gratitude for Mr. Lewis," Haskie said. "He has always been the person to lean on throughout my time at NAPI. Working with him on the legislative side on the NIIP project and our lobbying efforts with Congress and also his experience with our irrigation systems — 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 he would strive to continue the mission of the tribal agribusiness.

"I would like to focus on the employees to help them through this transition," he said. "We have a mission that we all share collectively of the company. That mission has not changed. My duty is to continue that mission."

The Resources and Development Committee, a standing committee of the 23rd Navajo Nation Council, oversees NAPI. The committee met in NAPI's board room on Oct. 27, a meeting Lewis attended.

But committee members reached by phone on Monday were surprised to learn of Lewis' dismissal.

Leonard Tsosie, a Council member representing the Eastern Agency, said he was not aware of the board's decision.

"There was no indication. It's somewhat of a surprise to me," Tsosie said. "I don’t know what happened."

Committee member Leonard Pete also was unaware of the circumstances of Lewis' dismissal.

"I don’t know. I was in Twin Arrows (Navajo Casino Resort in Flagstaff, Ariz.) on Friday," Pete said. "As a committee, we can’t touch (the board of directors). We don’t go that far."

Messages left for committee members Alton Joe Shepherd, Benjamin Bennett, Davis Filfred and Walter Phelps were not returned Monday.

And calls made to Anthony Perry, interim executive director of the tribe's Division of Economic Development, were not returned.

Mihio Manus, spokesman for the tribal president and vice president's office, did not respond to requests made Monday seeking details on Lewis' dismissal.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye praised Lewis in a press release on Saturday and encouraged all NAPI employees to "stay focused on building the success of the farming enterprise."

“Lewis was a true pioneer and the Navajo Nation was privileged to have him. We wish him well in his next endeavor,” Begaye said. “We know he will be successful in whatever he does.”

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

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