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

National Congress of American Indians suspends highest-ranking staffer

Executive director Jackie Pata sidelined amid concerns about #MeToo investigation
By Acee Agoyo

DENVER, Colorado -- Jackie Pata, the highest-ranking staffer at the National Congress of American Indians, has been placed on leave as questions mount about her handling of a #MeToo scandal and other long-standing employee complaints.

As they prepare for a milestone conference in Denver, Colorado, tribal leaders who serve on NCAI's executive committee made the decision to suspend Pata on Saturday. She will be sidelined pending the results of an investigation into allegations of staff misconduct, one of the issues that Indianz.Com has reported on over the last two months.

The allegations, which resulted in the ouster of NCAI's senior attorney, have eroded confidence in the nation's oldest and largest inter-tribal organization. Some tribal leaders, as well as advocates for Native women, have been seeking greater transparency and accountability in the wake of Indianz.Com's first report on August 31.

The executive committee's action represents a response to some of those concerns. Resolutions submitted ahead of NCAI’s 75th annual convention, which begins on Monday, called for Pata to be suspended pending an independent review of management, financial and other issues at the organization.

But the decision doesn’t go as far as sought by some in Indian Country. Instead of authorizing an investigation by an outside entity, NCAI for now has tasked an “ad hoc committee” with looking into the allegations.

The group is composed of tribal leaders who serve on the executive committee, according to a statement issued late Saturday night, just two days before the convention opens. But they won’t be looking into all of the complaints that have been outlined in one of the submitted resolutions.

“The NCAI executive committee established the ad hoc committee to review how allegations of staff misconduct have been addressed previously by the organization,” the statement read, outlining the limited nature of the internal probe.

Still, the decision marks a shift in course. NCAI has repeatedly defended its response to the scandal in three letters written by President Jefferson Keel, each one drafted after Indianz.Com published additional stories about the complaints that have rocked the organization’s standing.

And the move represents a setback for Pata, who has served as executive director at NCAI since 2001. Just two days before learning her fate, she was telling a much friendlier audience of Native leaders in Alaska -- her home state -- that she planned to be present at her organization’s conference all week, emphasizing NCAI's recognition of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

But with Pata out of the picture, NCAI will be overseen by a “team of NCAI senior leadership staff,” according to the Saturday night statement. The group consists of Virginia Davis, a senior policy advisor at the organization, Derrick Beetso, the recently-named general counsel, and Yvette Roubideaux, a former federal government official who heads up NCAI’s Policy Research Center.

Despite the new action, at least two members of this team have connections to the #MeToo allegations that cost John Dossett, NCAI’s former general counsel, his job. Davis, who is a part-time staffer, had initially been tasked — by Pata — earlier this year with investigating allegations against him, according to multiple former employees.

Only after facing pushback within the organization did Pata bring in a Washington, D.C., attorney whose work focuses on sexual harassment within the workplace to review complaints against Dossett. Following the review, his title was changed to senior counsel at NCAI.

Beetso was then unceremoniously named NCAI’s general counsel in late July. His promotion marked the first time a tribal citizen has held the job — Dossett is non-Indian and had served in the post since 1995 — yet there was no public announcement or explanation of the action.

And like Dossett, whose primary residence is in Oregon, Beetso is not based in Washington, where most of NCAI’s staff is housed in the Embassy of Tribal Nations. The Navajo Nation citizen has usually worked from Arizona since joining the organization.

The naming of a leadership team also sidesteps the new deputy director at NCAI. Ahniwake Rose, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was recently tapped to fill the vacant position, just as Pata was facing questions about her own leadership.

Rose has served as executive director of the National Indian Education Association since 2012. The organization rents space from NCAI on the grounds of the Embassy in D.C. though its board of directors recently voted to move most of its operations to Minnesota.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Jacqueline Pata of National Congress of American Indians addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives

The upheaval comes as NCAI meets in Denver, where the organization was formed in 1944 to address 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.

But some of the member tribes have raised concerns about NCAI's management. Many were first alerted to the situation when Nicole Hallingstad resigned as director of operations in August, warning Indian Country of an “oppressive culture” that has contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent 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 an August 13 letter to tribal leaders. “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.”

Since then, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians has withdrawn from NCAI, citing concerns about the way Native women were treated. Few others have publicly followed suit -- the Cherokee Nation just last week renewed its membership -- Chief J. B. Milam was one of the tribal leaders who helped form the organization in 1944.

"Tribes across the country, including the Cherokee Nation, are stronger today thanks to the work of NCAI over the years, and I am proud we are able to be a part of such an important organization,” Joe Byrd, the speaker of the tribal council, said in a press release. Byrd also serves as an area vice president for NCAI and is among those who sit on the executive committee.

But others are calling for change. Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was the leader who submitted the resolution seeking Pata's suspension.

Kevin DuPuis, the chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, submitted the resolution calling for an independent investigation. His request presents a number of issues that he wants addressed, such as NCAI's financial status, a record of how employee complaints -- including those against Dossett -- were handled and a list of grievances that were brought to Pata in her role as executive director.

According to President Keel's most recent letter, Dossett was the subject of "two specific allegations" of sexual harassment. One was the subject of an "earlier internal investigation," he wrote on October 11. [Full Letter: ]

Pata took it upon herself to investigate that earlier incident, multiple former employees told Indianz.Com. But until NCAI brought in the outside attorney earlier this year, there is no record that she fully resolved the complaint even though it stems from Dossett's conduct at an NCAI conference in June 2016.

Dossett himself wrote of the incident in an unusual and lengthy statement that he sent to a wide audience of tribal leaders, Native women advocates and key staff members on Capitol Hill using his NCAI email account on October 3. Later in the day, Pata confirmed to Indianz.Com that he no longer worked for the organization.

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

Keel confirmed the same in his October 11 letter. Dossett emailed his statement "without NCAI’s approval or authorization," the president wrote, and "no longer works for the organization."

In his unauthorized statement, Dossett disclosed details of a second complaint, which also stems from an incident at the same NCAI mid-year conference in Spokane. Keel, in his most recent letter, criticized the former attorney for providing information about fellow employees that he deemed to be confidential.

“These actions have violated the privacy of NCAI employees, and are contrary to the manner in which staff are treated when they raise concerns at NCAI," Keel wrote.

Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, has served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians since 2001. As the longest serving executive director in the organization's history, she is seen here at NCAI's mid-year conference in Spokane, Washington, in June 2016. John Dossett, the organization's former senior attorney, appears in the background. Photo: NCAI

Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, did not directly address how Dossett was able to obtain a copy of what appears to be an investigative report into his conduct. Dossett seemingly was able to quote directly from parts of it in his lengthy statement.

In a statement to Indianz.Com, a former employee who acknowledged making a complaint against Dossett said she was never told of the outcome of the investigation by the outside attorney.

"As she informed me when we met, I would never be privy to the contents of her investigative report— having left NCAI," the former employee wrote in reference to the attorney from the law firm of Vedder Price.

"I recently learned, however, that she found my allegations against John Dossett to be credible and reported this to NCAI’s Executive Council," said the former employee, who has been granted anonymity to share her statement out of concern for her privacy. [Full Statement: ]

According to DuPuis’s resolution, NCAI's administrative board -- its president, vice president, secretary and treasurer -- have refused to provide details of the investigation to other tribal leaders.

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

Pata's suspension is open ended but it is not her first. In April 2014, she was suspended for a week after she had been accused of misusing her executive director position in a matter affecting her husband, who is also an employee of NCAI. She firmly denied any wrongdoing in an email seen by Indianz.Com.

But by that time, a number of tribes had already grown dissatisfied with her management. Earlier in 2014, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, the United Tribes of North Dakota and even a tribe in Pata's home state of Alaska were among those that passed resolutions within their own organizations calling on NCAI to find a new executive director.

Members of NCAI's executive board at the time had indeed considered replacing Pata and even began reaching out to potential candidates. But they did not take further action on her employment as executive director.

A request for comment sent to Pata via email on Saturday resulted in a standard "automatic reply" from her NCAI account.

NCAI's 75th annual convention is taking place at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center. The recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month takes place on Wednesday.

The conference concludes on Friday.

NCAI Statement
The following statement was issued late in the evening on October 20, 2018:
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Executive Committee announced this evening that NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata has been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of a review by an ad hoc committee composed of tribal leaders who serve on the Executive Committee.

The NCAI Executive Committee established the ad hoc committee to review how allegations of staff misconduct have been addressed previously by the organization. A team of NCAI senior leadership staff – Senior Advisor Virginia Davis, General Counsel Derrick Beetso, and Policy Research Center Director Yvette Roubideaux – have been appointed by the Administrative Officers to lead NCAI while the ad hoc committee review is in process.

2018 Documents
Jackie Pata Suspension Resolution | External Investigation Resolution

2014 Documents
Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association Resolution | Kenaitze Tribe Resolution | Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council [Now Known as Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council] Resolution | Ute Tribe Resolution | United Tribes of North Dakota Resolution

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