Council tables bill to help tribal enterprise

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co. CEO Louis Denetsosie waits to answer questions from members of the tribal council at this year's winter session in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – A funding request to help the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co. remains pending before the Navajo Nation Council.

Delegates voted 8-7 to table a bill requesting $4.9 million in supplemental funding from the tribe’s Undesignated Unreserved Fund Balance for the company. The money would be used as a payment for a loan the company received from Wells Fargo Bank.

Immediately after a motion was made to consider the measure during the council's winter session on Thursday, Delegate Mel Begay stated the company’s shareholder representatives, who are delegates appointed by each of the standing committees, were facing a conflict of interest by voting on the bill.

“To protect the council, we need to do what is right and what is good,” Begay said.

Levon Henry, the council’s attorney, said there was no conflict of interest under the tribe’s ethics in government law because it did not fall under the nature of a family relationship or business interest. But in an earlier opinion, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said there is a conflict.

The shareholder representatives are delegates Benjamin Bennett, Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Davis Filfred, Jonathan Perry and Dwight Witherspoon.

Bennett, Crotty and Perry were not present for the debate. Witherspoon remained in the council chamber but excused himself in a written statement read by Speaker LoRenzo Bates. Filfred was in the council chamber but left at some point during the discussion.

Delegate Seth Damon, the bill’s sponsor, said the funding would help the company pay its debt for the loan in six months.

“They have not been able to pay back that payment, and this was an attempt to help them and assist in making sure we do not go into a default on the loan,” Damon said.

Over the past few months, there have been meetings with shareholders, he said, adding that new board members will be seated on Thursday.

“From that point on, it seems that Navajo Nation Oil and Gas is moving into the direction of a forbearance agreement with the Wells Fargo Bank,” he said.

Damon said if the company does not receive assistance, there is the potential for the company to lose its assets, including a major pipeline and oil fields in Utah. He said the tribe could lose jobs and revenue.

In a letter to the council, company CEO Louis Denetsosie and corporate chairman Lennard Eltsosie wrote that the bank is requiring the company to pay $37.5 million in six months, and the first payment of $6.25 million was due Dec. 31.

During the council discussion, Bates, the speaker, said his office is working to address the situation, as ordered by the council several weeks ago. Bates said Denetsosie notified him that the payments for December and January were no longer a concern and indicted they were negotiating a forbearance agreement with the bank. He also learned the company is negotiating the sale of a vacant building for $3.2 million.

Delegate Walter Phelps questioned why the bill was labeled as emergency legislation.

“We want to make sure the emergency clause is used at a proper and appropriate time,” Phelps said.

After more than an hour of discussion, the delegates approved tabling the legislation for at least two weeks.

Earlier on Wednesday, the council approved the tribe’s parks and recreation department's plan to use $3.2 million from a fund balance for renovation and construction. A portion of the funding will go toward completing a National Environmental Protection Agency study for a power line extension to the Four Corners Monument.

Delegate Tom Chee said the power line extension would not only affect the monument but assist the surrounding residences with electricity service.

Delegates also approved legislation confirming the appointment of Jim R. Parris as tribal controller.

The session continues at 2 p.m. today to allow delegates to attend a funeral service for radio personality George Werito, who died Sunday.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.