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Despite Reputation for ‘Best’ Courts, Navajo Leaders under Shadow With AM-Indian Governments

July 13, 1988

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) _ Carolyn Benally, a Navajo employment officer, got some action when she complained to a local paper about favoritism in tribal civil service hiring. She was fired.

Her lawyer, John Chapela, offers little encouragement for redress. He is only in private practice because he was dismissed as head of the Navajo Housing Authority for being, he said, in the wrong party.

Civil rights attorneys say the Navajos have perhaps the best of any tribal court system, but they point to a recent scandal and allegations of civil rights abuses as evidence that individual Navajos face discrimination by tribal leaders.

Chairman Peter MacDonald, who spoke in an interview with charm and persuasion of his plans to restore Navajo prosperity, denied any wrongdoing. He has never been indicted, much less convicted.

But even close associates acknowledge that recent developments provide cause for raised eyebrows.

A major scandal is ″Bogate,″ the tribe’s purchase of the Big Boquillas Ranch near Tuba City, Ariz., a year ago.

Middlemen paid Tenneco West $26.2 million for it. Five minutes later, the Navajos bought the ranch for $33.4 million.

MacDonald, in an interview, said the Navajos paid a fair price and did not know what the intermediary purchasers had paid. A commission to the middlemen was normal, he said, adding: ″That’s partly how business is done in America.″

But a principal middleman was an old associate who had raised money for MacDonald’s campaigns. The ranch had been on the market 20 years.

Shortly after the Tribal Council approved the purchase, Coconino County records show, MacDonald paid off the loan on his retirement home.

The circumstances prompted separate investigations by the Inspector-General of the Interior Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. All are still under way.

More recently, MacDonald sought to assert tribal control over the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation, regarded as a sinecure for his arch rival Peterson Zah, the former chairman.

Zah, locked out of his office, got a court order barring anyone from evicting him. The tribe found another judge. After a judicial tug-of-war, police shut down the whole building, leaving 80 other employees in the street.

″The integrity of the Navajo Nation law has been reduced to this game of musical doorknobs,″ observed Duane Beyal, Zah’s spokesman.

Shortly after a group of workers marched to MacDonald’s office to ask for alternate quarters, two participants were fired, although the tribe gave other reasons for their dismissal.

Dissent has been rare since MacDonald shut down the independent-minded Navajo Times daily in 1986, expelling editors before they could produce the next morning’s edition. MacDonald said the tribe-owned paper was losing money.

Nevertheless, the tribe spends $2 million a year on public relations firms and Washington lobbyists, MacDonald acknowledged.

Chapela, who is collecting signatures for a recall that can take place only with approval from MacDonald’s hand-picked council, said, ″His goal is to bankrupt the Navajo Nation to finance his gold-plated retirement.″

Other sources speak to visitors in whispered asides, or through notes passed at the Navajo Nation Motor Inn, the focal point of this windswept capital city in northern Arizona.

But, warned a non-Indian lawyer with long experience on the reservation, allegations are not proof. ″If MacDonald is a crook,″ he said, ″he is a smart one.″ To protect himself, the lawyer insisted on anonymity.

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