Shiprock Home for Women and Children incomplete despite more than $1M in state funding

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A domestic violence shelter has been under construction for years in Shiprock, and despite receiving more than $1 million from the New Mexico Legislature, it never opened because previous Navajo Nation leaders blocked its funding, officials involved in the project say.

"The complication is not the shelter," said Ray Begaye, a former state representative who authorized most of the state money for the project. "It's the wait time in getting this funding to them."

Between 2004 and 2009, the state Legislature allocated more than $1.4 million for the nonprofit to plan, design, build and furnish the new shelter. When that money wasn't spent, it reauthorized it 12 times between 2007 and 2012, according to a Daily Times data analysis of New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration records.

But according to those DFA records, the shelter spent less than $290,000.

In 2014, the Legislature diverted $794,000 of the state funds to an irrigation project elsewhere on the Navajo Nation and eventually took back another $352,672, according to the records. The state spent the remaining $6,000 on public art projects, the records show.

Severance tax bonds funded fewer than half of the appropriations, and the Legislature approved all of them in 2009, the DFA records state. Another $800,000 came from the state's general fund, and the final $100,000 came from a capital projects fund, according to DFA records.

It's unlikely a local project such as the Shiprock shelter could misuse state funds, said Moses Winston, New Mexico Indian Affairs Department general counsel and legislative coordinator. Before his department issues grants, it needs to first see invoices for the work it's funding, he said.

"It would be very difficult to do any fraudulent activity with state funds," he said.

But those funds — as well as federal funds — must pass through a tribe before reaching a project such as the one in Shiprock. The tribe, Winston said, must be the fiscal agent, and it has the power to block the funding. "I could see that happening very easily," he said.

The shelter also received other grants, but the paperwork to track that money was not immediately available.

The shelter is 80 percent complete today, but its original contractor, RJN Construction Management Inc., has been barred by a Navajo Nation court order from finishing the project.

A barbed-wire fence now surrounds the site. It's locked with chains. Inside, weeds have grown tall. Because the nonprofit organization demolished the old shelter to clear space for the new one, it now operates out of modular units nearby.

In 2014, shelters protected more than 1,100 people on the Navajo Nation, according to data from the Navajo Nation Department of Family Services. All but 2 percent were Navajo, and more than half were children, according to the data.

Begaye said the shelter would probably be open today if administrations of the former Navajo Nation presidents Joe Shirley Jr. and Ben Shelly hadn't hamstrung its funding. Other local and statewide officials support Begaye's statements.

Deswood Tome, who served as Shelly's chief of staff near the end of his term in office, denied the allegations in an email. "Funds were not held up," he wrote. "There were requirements that had to be met before construction continued."

Efforts throughout the week to reach Shirley, who is now a county supervisor for Apache County, Ariz., were unsuccessful.

Begaye said the problem began after Shirley was elected president in 2002. Shirley hired attorneys who began questioning how nonprofits function on the Navajo Nation, and they deemed them "foreign corporations," he said.

That meant the nation questioned why it would fund the nonprofit if it's not part of the tribe, he said. The tribe also decided that all property — and buildings — on the nation belonged to its government, he said.

The Shiprock nonprofit of course objected to this, he said. A lot of its funding came from outside the tribe, and it had obtained a 75-year lease in July 2007 for land on which it would build the new shelter, according to New Mexico DFA and Navajo Nation legal documents.

The shelter's director at the time, Gloria Champion, and the project's original contractor, Bob Nelson, said the attorney who withheld funding from the project was Luralene Tapahe. Begaye and other officials agreed.

Calls placed to numerous phone numbers listed in a background search on Tapahe were not returned.

Tome disputed the allegations, saying the tribe could not function without nonprofits, and because the nation is technically federal land, that prevents the tribe from granting outright ownership.

Under the 2007 lease agreement, the nonprofit would build and operate the shelter, according to Nation legal documents. But according to the documents, the agreement was rewritten several times, including on September 2009, March 2010 and May 2010.

The latter amendment stated that the tribe would instead build the new shelter, not the nonprofit, according to the legal documents. But by November 2010, the shelter was still unfinished, and that's the year when the relationship the tribe had with Champion and Nelson deteriorated, the legal documents state.

The Navajo Housing Authority put on hold and then terminated a grant agreement with the nonprofit, according to the legal documents.

The tribe obtained about $1.1 million in new state funded Indian Affairs Department grants, but the Nation's Department of Justice blocked the funding, according to the legal documents.

The tribe began seeking contractors other than Nelson to build the new shelter, but Nelson's lawyer wrote the bidders discouraging letters five days after the Department of Justice killed the grants, the legal documents state.

Seven days later — after officials, either with the nonprofit or the contractor, chained and locked the tall fence surrounding the shelter — the tribe took legal action, according to the legal documents.

On Feb. 7, 2011, Shiprock District Court Judge Genevieve Woody ordered the nonprofit, Nelson and his company not to interfere with the tribe accessing or building the new shelter. It also ordered them not to discourage third parties from working on the project.

The Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation backed the order on Jan. 17, 2012.

In more recent years, the nonprofit could have completed the shelter had Shelly approved $180,000 in supplemental funds, some of which would have been used for the project, Begaye said. But Shelly vetoed the funding bill.

In his veto message dated May 5, 2014, he said he based his decision on a Navajo Nation Division of Social Services audit. According to that audit, the nonprofit needed to take numerous corrective actions — such as locking cabinets that contain client information, tweaking policies and securing medications. The Daily Times received a copy of the audit from the shelter's lawyer, Jim Zion.

In his veto message, Shelly said the audit deemed the shelter "high risk," but the phrase does not appear in the nine-page report. Shelly also said the document was dated 2011, but it's actual date is 2012.

Zion said in a letter to Shelly that his veto message was defamatory.

"If you had read the report you would have seen that it is a fairly normal audit report that only identifies technical shortcomings and does not begin to come close to the regulatory definition," he said.

Tome said in an email that Shelly did read the audit.

The audit only required that the nonprofit assemble a corrective action plan, which Champion did, addressing all the demerits, according to a copy of the plan she provided The Daily Times.

"If he had signed it, the building would have been completed," Begaye said of the supplemental funding bill. "But in this instance, once he vetoed it, that was it."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.