John Dossett, former general counsel and former senior counsel of the National Congress of American Indians, is seen in a 2016 photo at an NCAI event in Washington, D.C. Photo: NCAI

National Congress of American Indians ousts senior attorney after #MeToo outcry

'I became the fall guy'
Attorney refutes sexual harassment allegations as he is shown the door
By Kevin Abourezk

A high-ranking attorney at the National Congress of American Indians, under fire for alleged sexual harassment of fellow employees, has lost his job.

Jacqueline Pata, NCAI's executive director, confirmed the decision to Indianz.Com on Wednesday. She said John Dossett is no longer employed as senior counsel at the nation's largest and oldest inter-tribal advocacy organization after working there for more than 20 years.

The announcement came after Dossett -- using his NCAI email account -- sent a lengthy statement to numerous tribal leaders and advocates in the afternoon. Through nearly eight pages, he defended his work for the organization and denied the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him by former colleagues.

According to Pata, NCAI didn't know Dossett was going to send out the statement, which shocked several Native women who received it.

“NCAI had no knowledge of, and John was not authorized to send, that statement to anyone,” Pata told Indianz.Com. “Further, I can only confirm that John Dossett is no longer employed by NCAI."

"No other comments will be made regarding this personnel matter,” Pata said.

In his statement, Dossett said the allegations against him were politically motivated, and he defended his work at NCAI, including his participation in NCAI's Task Force on Violence Against Women and his efforts to get both Violence Against Women Act reauthorizations passed in 2005 and 2013. And he offered his own account of an interaction with a former employee that he said was the subject of much of the criticism against him.

He also called for further investigation into the allegations against him.

“False allegations go in the news, and nobody hears what really happened,” he said. “My reputation and career are in jeopardy, and I need to respond. I don’t intend to be defensive, but I need to be transparent about what I did and didn’t do.”

Allegations of sexual harassment at the conclusion of the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference in Spokane, Washington, in June 2016 are at the heart of sexual harassment allegations against the organization's former senior attorney, John Dossett. Photo: NCAI

NCAI has come under mounting pressure in recent days to take further action following an August 31 report by Indianz.Com that showed NCAI had reassigned Dossett following an internal investigation.

Prior to the investigation, Dossett served as NCAI’s general counsel, its highest-ranking legal position and one with widespread influence in Indian Country. He had held that position since 1995.

But after the investigation ended, his title was changed to senior counsel, a different role within the organization, though in the same legal area.

Despite the reassignment, some tribal leaders wanted greater accountability within NCAI and called for an independent investigation into the allegations against Dossett.

On September 24, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians canceled its membership in NCAI and expressed deep concerns about the organization’s handling of sexual harassment allegations. In a letter to NCAI President Jefferson Keel, the tribe’s chairman, Matthew Wesaw, said the Pokagon were concerned that allegations against Dossett hadn’t been thoroughly investigated.

“Jefferson, I fully support you and the work of NCAI, but until NCAI can show this matter has been satisfactorily resolved, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians has discontinued our membership," Wesaw continued. "This was not an easy decision but one we felt we had an obligation to make on behalf of our native women.”

Then on Friday, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe released a statement criticizing NCAI for becoming a “lobbying venue for corporate interests.” He mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the organization's presidency last October.

In the statement, Frazier called for the removal of NCAI’s executive board – its president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and Pata – for “not allowing a transparent process to address issues and failing to protect the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,” a reference to a recent decision by the Trump administration to take the tribe’s reservation out of trust.

He also said Pata had failed to “protect staff from bad actors and policies.”

“It is important to protect our tribal brothers and sisters from the wolves and not allow them into our camp to prey on us,” Frazier said.

Pata declined to respond to Frazier's claims when asked last Friday.

Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe addresses supporters at the 74th annual National Congress of American Indians convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 19, 2017. Frazier ran for president of NCAI but lost in the first round of balloting. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In his statement, Dossett said he never sexually harassed anyone and claims the allegations against him are the result of a concerted effort by NCAI’s former director of operations, Nicole Hallingstad, to push the organization’s executive director, Jackie Pata, out of NCAI.

He said, despite Indianz.Com publishing “false rumors” about him, no victims have come forward.

“There aren’t any,” Dossett wrote in his statement.

“We are in a time where there is little sympathy for a guy who claims to be falsely accused of sexual harassment,” he said. “I get it. This is the time for an important social movement to protect women from sexual harassment and violence. That movement is vastly more important than me or my career.”

Dossett offered a lengthy description of the #MeToo movement and his own education into women’s rights.

He said always believed women should be equal, though he admitted to having been criticized by a fellow law school classmate for judging a women based on her appearance and said he has made some “inappropriate jokes in unguarded moments.” Dossett justified his inappropriate behavior as typical of the times.

“I am a 53 year old man who grew up in the society that needs to change,” he said.

But he said he vowed to be professional to women after starting work for NCAI in 1995. He said he understood the need to have good working relationships with female colleagues and to tread carefully as a non-Native attorney working for a Native advocacy organization.

“I’m a white guy working for a Native organization,” he said. “This is thin ice. Only an idiot would misbehave in these circumstances.”

Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, has served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians since 2001. She is the longest serving executive director in the organization's history. Photo: NCAI

He said the allegations against him began with a cultural shift that he said started within NCAI in about 2014, when the organization began recruiting experienced employees from the federal government and corporate world. Those employees, Dossett said, brought with them a more bureaucratic approach to their work, something he said he resisted. And that resistance led to conflict between him and some former NCAI staff members, he said.

And he offered his version of an interaction that he claims is the source for the false sexual harassment allegations against him.

The incident occurred at the conclusion of the NCAI mid-year conference in Spokane, Washington, in June 2016, he said.

That night, a large group of NCAI staff members had gone to dinner. Some drank alcohol, including one former colleague who he claimed drank too much and passed out around 9 p.m. As a senior employee, Dossett said, he felt obliged to help her get back to her hotel room.

As they neared her hotel, Dossett asked the young woman – whom he described as in a “stupor, not aware of her surroundings” – for her room number, which startled her. He said the woman jumped toward the street, which was heavy with traffic, and he grabbed her arm to keep her from being hit.

He said the young woman seemed more alert and went to the hotel elevator, so he went back to his hotel.

“I thought that was all there was to it,” Dossett said. “I felt virtuous. I helped out a friend, kept her out of the street, and packed up for departure.”

Five weeks later, he was told the woman had reported the incident to Pata. He said the woman felt he was trying to take advantage of her when he asked for her room number. But he said he never wanted anything more than to help her get to her room safely.

He said Pata investigated the incident and concluded nothing had taken place.

“In the end, this is my version of events, and anyone can believe what they want,” Dossett said. “I swear on a stack of sacred and legal documents that this is true, and I did not sexually harass my colleague, or anyone.”

Nicole Hallingstad, a ciitzen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, served as director of operations for the National Congress of American Indians until August 24, 2018. According to a letter sent to tribal leaders, an “oppressive culture” at NCAI has contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent years. Courtesy photo

But Dossett also criticized statements made by former NCAI operations director Hallingstad, who resigned August 24 and sent statements to NCAI board members and to Pata warning of an “oppressive culture” that had contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent years.

Since January, 11 employees have left NCAI, Hallingstad wrote in the letter. Overall, she said, 33 full-time employees have left in the last three years.

“Committed staff does not lightly leave an organization they love and a mission they are passionate about fulfilling,” Hallingstad, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, wrote in a letter to tribal leaders who serve on NCAI’s leadership board. “But when they see colleagues marginalized, disciplined, punished, and even terminated for trying to address issues of poor management – or bad actors not held to account for disrespectful behavior – and the oppressive culture of silence and lack of authentic process means they cannot speak with their voices, then they will speak with their feet.”

Dossett said Hallingstad used the sexual harassment allegation against him as part of an attack against Pata, but he also accused Pata of informing Hallingstad about the allegation against him in the first place.

“I am not sure why Jackie decided to tell her about a confidential employee matter, but that is what Nicole reported,” he said.

He believes Hallingstad and Pata, both citizens of the same tribe and both members of the Sealaska board of directors, have long been rivals.

Hallingstad recently won a seat on the board for the corporation, one of the Native regional corporations in Alaska. Pata has served since 1999.

“Nicole has a rivalry with Jackie that I don’t understand, but seems to have something to do with Sealaska,” he said.

He claims she was terminated in 2015 by Sealaska for unknown reasons.

Hallingstad was unavailable for comment on Dossett’s statement on Wednesday.

Dossett claimed Hallingstad began creating problems for NCAI after being hired in 2015, constantly handing tasks that were hers to perform to others. And he said she wanted Pata’s position.

“I found her difficult to deal with because she isn’t really interested in federal Indian policy; she just wants to be in charge,” he wrote.

He said Hallingstad began criticizing Pata for mishandling employee matters, including dredging up the 2016 allegation against Dossett.

“I can understand why some of my female colleagues at NCAI became concerned,” he said. “Somehow I became a ‘predator.’”

He said a friend of Hallingstad’s, who worked for NCAI at the time, decided to lodge her own sexual harassment complaint against him. The complaint, which was filed on February 26, alleged he had made a vulgar statement during the same mid-year conference in Spokane in 2016.

According to her complaint, Dossett had walked into a hotel lounge where some staff members were watching soccer on TV and asked what their plans were for the evening. When the woman said she was planning to go to her room to nap, Dossett allegedly responded by saying: “Alright, I guess I’ll go beat off in my room, then.”

“I had been the general counsel for more than 20 years because I don’t use expressions like that,” Dossett said.

He said he believes he said, “Alright, I’ll go back up to my room then,” but that the woman misheard him amid the din of the TV and people talking in the hotel lounge.

Later, he said, Pata decided to hire an external investigator, Sadina Montani, an attorney with the Vedder Price firm, to look into the woman’s allegation against him. But he said he believes the investigation was compromised by the purported rivalry between Hallingstad and Pata.

“It was diverted from a search for the truth of the matter, in an effort to placate Nicole Hallingstad by responding to her false allegations,” he said. “I became the fall guy.”

He said he received a disciplinary memo in his personnel file after the investigation. He said the memo included allegations of “unprofessional and inappropriate behavior, including yelling, bullying, being disrespectful, speaking over colleagues, insulting and derogatory emails, and sexually charged comments,” most of which he denied.

“I am not saying that my behavior is perfect,” Dossett said. “However, most of these complaints are exaggerated or untrue.”

He said Pata later told him that people had come “out of the woodwork” to complain about him during the investigation, a fact he attributes to Hallingstad’s efforts to undermine Pata.

Dossett said he decided to try to move on after being told his job title would be changing.

And he criticized Indianz.Com’s reporting of the allegations against him.

“In some respects, the article disproves itself,” he said. “It labelled me as a sexual predator, at the height of the #MeToo movement. One month later, no victims have come forward. Zero. This is because I have never sexually harassed anyone.”

He said the allegations have caused him great distress, leading him to lose 15 pounds, disrupting his sleep and causing his blood pressure to become a problem.

“Politically, this is a nightmare,” Dossett said. “I know that there is a desire to just get rid of me, and maybe that will happen. This is possibly the worst time to have an accusation of sexual harassment, no matter how vague and unsupported by any actual victim.”

“But, I need a chance to clear my name, and that is the purpose of this response.”

NCAI was formed in Denver, Colorado, in 1944 to respond to threats against tribal sovereignty, including termination of the federal trust relationship. It has since grown to become the largest and most representative Indian organization, representing tribes from Alaska to Maine to Florida.

The organization is returning to Denver for its 75th annual convention. The meeting takes place October 21-26.

John Dossett Statement
In sending out his statement on October 3, 2018, from his National Congress of American Indians email account, John Dossett explained why he was going public. The explanation follows:
Many people have read the Indianz story that makes horrible allegations about me. The allegations are false, and they are causing great harm to my reputation and career.

For the last month I have been working with NCAI, encouraging the organization to investigate and to respond to the allegations. The Executive Committee feels constrained from doing so.

I have attempted to comply with NCAI’s confidentiality policy about these matters, but it has backfired. False allegations go in the news, and nobody hears what really happened. My reputation and career are in jeopardy, and I need to respond.

Attached please find my account of events. For those who have read the article and have concerns about my behavior, thank you for the opportunity to tell my story. I believe this is important for NCAI as well. The organization is receiving a great deal of unwarranted criticism.

I have been very fortunate to work for NCAI since 1995. Whether I continue to work for NCAI or not, it is my greatest wish to restore the trust that we have in each other, and I hope that you will give me the chance to do so.

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