Navajo Nation Council removes controller
FARMINGTON – The Navajo Nation Council has approved a bill to remove Jim R. Parris as the tribe's top financial officer even as Parris claimed in a resignation letter obtained by The Daily Times that he was being pressured by Council delegates to violate the ethics of his profession.
The council voted on the bill — 17 in favor and five opposed — during a special session on Wednesday in Window Rock, Ariz.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called the action by the 24-member council "unfortunate" since the vote removed the tribe's first controller who is licensed as a certified public accountant.
Begaye said in a statement to The Daily Times late Wednesday that because Parris insisted on abiding by the laws and policies required of a CPA, he was threatened with removal.
The president added that during Parris' service he followed tribal law, respecting presidential veto authority and standing by legal opinions issued by the tribe's attorney general.
"Some on council accomplished their goal by putting up a smoke screen that hindered the understanding of other delegates and gave them no clear alternative to (removing) Controller Parris," the president stated.
The bill calling for Parris' removal was introduced on Dec. 20 and six days later, Parris submitted the letter of resignation to Begaye, Speaker LoRenzo Bates and Delegate Seth Damon, who serves as chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee.
In his letter, Parris wrote about difficulties in working with certain delegates and said that during the last six months he endured repeated requests for his removal.
He stated he felt pressure from delegates to approve a number of financial matters, including those dealing with a gaming restructuring loan and spending plans that had not been signed by President Begaye.
"I have never experienced such disrespectful behavior from tribal council members during my 38 years of working with tribal governments across the United States, as I have from some members of the Navajo Tribal Council," Parris wrote.
Parris wrote that he did not believe the tribe would be able to "hire and keep professional CPAs at the Office of the Controller if the Council continues to treat them in a similar manner."
His letter also addressed criticism of the work schedule and salary he negotiated with Begaye as well as his willingness to serve as a mentor when the tribe hired a qualified tribal member to serve as controller.
According to the speaker's office release, one of the issues with Parris' service was that the contract required him to work up to three days a week while receiving $140,000 with quarterly "bonuses" of $10,000 each for a total of $180,000.
Parris, in his letter, said he was not aware that the terms of the contract were not shared with the council, "which proved to become a major issue with some members." He said that while he did work three days in Window Rock, he also worked at home in Rio Rancho.
"I believe that I have more than met the terms of my employment as agreed to with the President," he wrote.
Bates could not be reached for comment today.
Mihio Manus, spokesman for the president's office, said Begaye and his staff would meet today to discuss the appointment of an acting controller.
During the special session, the council passed an amendment allowing the Office of the Controller to operate under a delegation of authority memorandum issued by Parris in November, according to a press release from the Office of the Speaker.
Jared Touchin, spokesman for the speaker's office, said the memorandum named Robert Willie, general accounting manager in the controller's office, to assume oversight of the department.
Voting in favor of the bill were delegates Kee Allen Begay, Nelson BeGaye, Norman M. Begay, Benjamin Bennett, Nathaniel Brown, Tom Chee, Seth Damon, Herman Daniels Jr., Davis Filfred, Jonathan Hale, Lee Jack Sr., Walter Phelps, Alton Joe Shepherd, Tauchoney Slim Jr., Otto Tso, Leonard Tsosie and Edmund Yazzie.
Those who opposed the bill were Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Jonathan Perry, Leonard Pete, Raymond Smith Jr., and Dwight Witherspoon.
Speaker LoRenzo Bates and Delegate Peterson Yazzie did not cast votes.
Hours before the special session on Wednesday, the president's office issued a press release stating that approval of the bill would be "financially catastrophic" to the tribe.
In addition, the release stated, approval would impact the finance department in handling payroll for tribal employees as well as stopping the issuance of checks for burial assistance, general assistance and veterans' assistance.
The release further states the tribe faces breach of contracts, agreements and leases if the process of payments are stopped.
It added Parris' removal would impact the bond rating and future bond financing for the tribe.
Bates, in a press release from his office, called the statements "false" because there are administrative processes, procedures and safeguards in place to ensure the tribe's financial stability.
In the release, Bates said he was "disappointed" by the misinformation in the president's office release, and that, as former delegates, Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez should have the knowledge and understanding of the processes in place in event the controller seat is vacated.
"To blatantly attempt to misinform the Navajo citizens and cause a 'public panic' regarding direct services is without a doubt a political ploy by the OPVP," Bates said in the release.
The speaker added that the tribe has previously operated without a controller and the role is limited to managing daily operations. He said the position has no bearing on financial contracts, bond financing, agreements, leases or a bond rating.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.