Hopi lawmakers drop top attorney, suspend others

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) May 2010

Hopi lawmakers have dismissed the tribe’s top attorney, and suspended its treasurer and secretary in the latest political shakeup on the northern Arizona reservation.

The Tribal Council voted May 13 to cancel the contract for Scott Canty, who has been the tribe’s general counsel for nearly two decades. It also voted to suspend longtime tribal secretary Mary Felter and treasurer Russell Mockta with pay.

The votes came after what council member Leroy Sumatzkuku, who co-sponsored the actions, said were years of the three disregarding ethics and tribal laws. Canty dismissed the assertion, saying it boils down to a power struggle by the tribal chairman and his supporters on the council.

“I think we did the right thing, we’re on the right course,” Sumatzkuku said. “We just need to firm up our government so we’re accountable for all our actions, and that’s basically what this whole thing is about.”

When Hopis elected tribal Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa and Vice Chairman Herman Honanie in November, the hope was that the years of political wrangling would end. But court challenges, musical chairs on the council and conflicts with traditional village governments continued.

About 8,000 Hopis live among 12 villages at three mesas that rise thousands of feet above the surrounding northern Arizona desert. Not all villages send representatives to the Tribal Council, instead maintaining their own forms of government, some more progressive than others.

The lawmakers who attended the council meeting represented the villages of Upper Moenkopi, Sipaulovi and Kykotsmovi. They also voted to reinstate the tribal newspaper, rescind two previous council actions and dismiss an attorney working under Canty.

Canty’s current contract with the tribal government was set to expire in 2012, but either party could terminate it at any time, he said.

Sumatzkuku said Canty no longer was representing the best interests of the tribe and had advocated positions to the federal government that were not approved by the council. Canty’s decision not to represent a faction of the council in a lawsuit brought by other council members, whose seats are in contention, factored into his dismissal, Sumatzkuku said.

Canty said he could not rightfully represent the Tribal Council in a fight among its members, nor support what he contends is an improper view of the constitution.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” he said. “Tribal governments are sovereign and they have the right to do what they think is best, including this. I support tribal sovereignty. I hope they can put aside these hard feelings they have among themselves and move on to a future that is going to be good for the Hopi kids, for the Hopi people.”

The council voted to suspend Mockta over what the chairman’s office said was $4.4 million in lost tribal investments. A news release earlier this year from the executive office said the investment practices didn’t fall within those approved by the council.

Mockta said that the actual loss was around $3.3 million over 14 months that was realized at the end of 2008. The tribe’s investment portfolio is about $210 million, he said.

The loss was not a significant amount, he said, especially at a time when other government investments suffered because of the economy. Mockta, who has been tribal treasurer for seven years and previously worked in the tribe’s accounting office, said he is certain he’ll be cleared in any investigation.

“It had been blown out of proportion and it still is,” he said.

Hearings are pending for Mockta and Felter, who Sumatzkuku said was suspended because she acted outside her authority in attempting to call Tribal Council meetings.

“What we had done is a positive thing,” said council member Everett Calnimptewa, who sponsored the actions with Sumatzkuku. “I think that’s going to move the tribe ahead.”