FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The top legal official on the Navajo Nation is being targeted for removal from office over his work on water rights and issues related to coal.
Harrison Tsosie was appointed as attorney general in 2011 by Tribal President Ben Shelly and confirmed by the Tribal Council. He previously served as deputy attorney general and ran unsuccessfully for tribal president.
Co-sponsors of legislation to oust Tsosie say he hasn't adequately served tribal lawmakers. They say he has disregarded their suggestions on negotiations for a settlement of the tribe's water rights to the Little Colorado River basin, the potential purchase of a coal mine, and a lease extension for the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page.
Shelly said he is open to hearing the lawmakers' grievances but doesn't know specifically why some want to remove Tsosie. Shelly said lawmakers should consider whether the move would best serve the Navajo people.
"Of all the laws and codes that could be updated, is this really worth pursuing?" said Erny Zah, a spokesman for Shelly. "Is the AG really hindering the growth of the Navajo government and the Navajo people to the point he has to be removed? How is he hurting the people? How subjective are those reasons? Those are some of the real questions."
Tsosie didn't return repeated messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The legislation's primary sponsor, Dwight Witherspoon, declined to comment on it. But three of the co-sponsors said Tsosie has presented the council with too few options on some of the most critical issues facing the tribe. The legislation is going through council committees but hasn't yet been scheduled for a vote by the full council.
Delegate Leonard Tsosie said the council's Resources and Development Committee had instructed the attorney general to contact former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl's office to remove a provision for the Navajo Generating Station from legislation that would recognize the tribe's rights to water in the Little Colorado River basin. Leonard Tsosie said that wasn't done.
"He failed to follow his client instruction and later on gave us an excuse, saying that he would carry out the instruction if it was the whole council telling him to do so," Leonard Tsosie said.
Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler said the council also had asked Harrison Tsosie to set up a due diligence section within the Navajo Department of Justice to look into the pros and cons of the tribe buying a coal mine. Butler said the council would not have approved $3 million in spending for an outside firm to conduct the study had Harrison Tsosie done so.
"If anything, this will send him that message that he is easily replaceable," Butler said.
Delegate Kenneth Maryboy outlined a dozen reasons he'd like to see someone else in Harrison Tsosie's job. Maryboy said Tsosie is out of touch with Navajo culture, discourages economic development, gives Shelly bad advice, and doesn't understand state and federal budgets.
Zah said the law firm hired to do a financial and legal analysis of purchasing the Navajo Mine near Farmington, N.M., specializes in aspects of the coal mining business. He said lawmakers have been given the opportunity to provide input on negotiating water rights and a lease extension for the power plant, but few have showed up to meetings.
As attorney general, Harrison Tsosie heads the tribe's Justice Department under its executive branch but serves at the pleasure of the Tribal Council. He survived an attempt at removing him from office in his final month as deputy attorney general under Joe Shirley Jr.'s administration. Harrison Tsosie's boss at the time, Louis Denetsosie, survived at least three votes in the Tribal Council to oust him. The council reprimanded Denetsosie in 2003, saying he favored the executive branch over the tribe as a whole.
Serving both the executive and legislative branches can be politically tricky. The key is to explain the law to clients and their options within the bounds of the law, said former Navajo Attorney General Levon Henry.
"With the Navajo Nation, sometimes that's difficult because everyone has an idea of what avenue to take," said Henry, who served as the tribe's attorney general from 1999 to 2003. "It's trying to get all those individuals — if it's the lawmakers, or the president, or the vice president, or any of the executive branch directors — to hear that advice and make a decision."
Delegate Russell Begaye hasn't decided which way to vote on Harrison Tsosie, but he would like to see a change in the approach the attorney general takes when working with the council. Begaye said he often gets the sense that the tribe is set in its old ways instead of pursuing new, innovative ways to move forward.
"If the removal of the attorney general will solve these issues, these questions I have, then I will support it," Begaye said. "But if the attorney general is willing to really work with the council and look at these issues from a different perspective, then I will support the attorney general remaining. I'm just looking for a change."
If Harrison Tsosie is removed from office, Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff would replace him until another appointment is made and that person is confirmed by the Tribal Council.