By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press Writer
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/hourlyupdate/229484.php
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The leader of one of the nation's largest American Indian tribes says he never had any doubt that sending several dozen employees to an education conference in Hawaii was the right thing for his tribe to do, and now the findings of a federal review are backing him up.
The U.S. Department of Interior's inspector general has determined that the Navajo Nation was not out of line when it sent employees to the National Indian Education Association conference in Honolulu last October and that the tribe did not misuse federal funds in doing so.
The inspector general's findings were made public Wednesday by Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who had requested an inquiry after accusations of misuse of funds were leveled against tribal officials.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said Wednesday it was important for tribal educators to participate in the conference.
"They need to be at these conferences to learn the new techniques and what new textbooks are out. That's all they were doing," he said. "And being that the Navajo Nation is the biggest Native American tribe in the western hemisphere, it's not anything alarming when many Navajos show up at a conference like the NIEA conference in Hawaii."
Tribal officials came under fire last fall after it was reported by The Daily Times in Farmington that 362 tribal members preregistered for the conference. Critics contended that fewer representatives could have gone, saving money needed by tribal schools.
But Navajo officials countered that not all of the tribal members who attended the conference went on behalf of the Navajo government or the tribal Head Start program.
The tribe confirmed that it sent 61 employees and had used federal funds to pay for only 15 Navajo Head Start employees to attend.
The Navajo Head Start program, which had its funding temporarily revoked in 2006 after a scathing report on problems that included inadequate financial controls, spent more than $35,000 on its conference representatives.
The inspector general noted that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Head Start interviewed tribal Head Start employees about their attendance and concluded there were no problems.
"We reviewed a sample of travel documents provided by the Office of Head Start and found nothing of concern," Inspector General Earl E. Devaney wrote in a March 7 letter to Domenici.
Of the other employees who attended the conference, Navajo officials told the inspector general that tribal funds were used to pay their way.
"The Navajo Nation has the authority to use its own funds as it deems appropriate, and it is the responsibility of the tribal members to ascertain the appropriateness of tribal fund expenditures," Devaney wrote.
After reviewing conference materials and speaking with Navajo officials, Devaney said his office concluded that the number of representatives sent by the tribe was reasonable when considering that the sprawling reservation is made up of more than a quarter of a million people.
"When we compared attendance to tribal enrollment numbers, other tribes had a larger percentage of attendees per capita," Devaney wrote.
Domenici said he hopes the inspector general's review answers some of the concerns raised about the Navajos' participation in the conference.
Shirley used the federal review to take issue with the accusations that his tribe had misused resources.
"As leaders, teachers, school board members, we're doing everything we can to bring home knowledge for the teaching of our children," he said.