Navajo Nation Council removes top financial officer, interim replacement named
FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Council has removed Pearline Kirk as the top financial officer for the tribal government, stemming from allegations that her office entered an illegal contract for COVID-19 testing on employees and other related services.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on May 20 named former auditor general Elizabeth Begay as acting controller. Begay will start work on May 21, according to the president's office.
Delegates voted 13 in favor and 10 opposed on May 19 on emergency legislation brought forward last week by Delegate Pernell Halona.
While the bill does not cite reasons for removing Kirk, it states the council "no longer desires to retain" her as controller and "finds it to be in the best interest" to remove her from the office.
Press releases issued on May 18 and May 19 by the Office of the Speaker state that "irregularities" were found over contracts between the controller's office and Agile Technologies Group LLC to conduct rapid COVID-19 tests on employees.
Navajo Nation investigation details
According to the May 18 press release, Attorney General Doreen McPaul told the council that an investigation by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice revealed more than $3 million was paid to Agile Technologies from funding the tribe received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
In addition, McPaul stated that Agile Technologies did not report test results to the tribe's health department, did not provide contact tracing and failed to protect personal information.
The release also states that the Department of Justice filed criminal charges against Kirk. However, details about the case have been sealed by the tribal court at the request of McPaul.
On May 7, McPaul sent a cease-and-desist letter to Roderick Martin, chief managing partner of Agile Technologies, to stop testing activities and operations on the Navajo Nation.
Martin was unavailable for comment on the afternoon of May 20.
The letter described Agile Technologies' services as unlawful, including an alleged lack of communication with the Navajo Department of Health and the Navajo Health Command Operations Center for tests to detect COVID-19 and to detect the presence of antibodies. It was also alleged that the company did not follow guidelines for contractors and third parties to conduct the tests.
Agile Technologies is based in Chicago. A January 2021 press release about the company mentioned its contract with the controller's office for rapid testing and for installation of air filtration for the coronavirus in the administration building that houses the controller's office in Window Rock, Arizona.
Navajo Nation and COVID-related funding
During the spring session in April, The Daily Times observed Agile Technologies conducting COVID-19 testing on delegates, employees and visitors as part of requirements by the speaker's office for entering the council chamber.
The tribe's Department of Justice also issued on May 12 a legal preservation notice to the controller's office and its contractors to preserve documents related to CARES Act funding.
In response to a request by The Daily Times for a copy of the notice, the department stated it was "confidential."
The Navajo Nation received $714.18 million in CARES Act funding through the U.S. Department of the Treasury to address the coronavirus pandemic.
Kirk was designated as controller in February 2017 by former President Russell Begaye. She was confirmed by the 23rd Navajo Nation Council later that month.
According to the Navajo Nation Code, the president appoints the controller followed by approval by the council and service is "at the pleasure" of the council.
President Nez has not said anything public regarding the council's action against Kirk.
Kirk's removal from office comes as the tribal government makes plans for funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The vote to remove Kirk came during a second special session to consider the emergency bill sponsored by Halona, who reminded the council that the controller can be removed without any reason.
Delegates met previously on May 14 and spent more than eight hours talking about the matter.
Voting in favor of the bill on May 19 were delegates Mark Freeland, Pernell Halona, Jamie Henio, Rick Nez, Carl Slater, Raymond Smith Jr., Wilson Stewart Jr., Daniel E. Tso, Eugene Tso, Thomas Walker Jr., Edison Wauneka, Edmund Yazzie and Jimmy Yellowhair.
Those who opposed the bill were Elmer Begay, Kee Allen Begay Jr., Paul Begay, Nathaniel Brown, Eugenia Charles-Newton, Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Herman Daniels, Vince James, Otto Tso and Charlaine Tso.
Speaker Seth Damon did not cast a vote.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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