Elk Fountain, a sculpture located across from the federal district courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'He was punished for sexual harassment': Allegations at National Congress of American Indians resurface in court

PORTLAND, Oregon -- The National Congress of American Indians drove another nail into the coffin of its senior-most attorney at a federal court hearing here on Wednesday.

NCAI had previously been reluctant to explain why John Dossett, its former general counsel, was reassigned to a different position. Officials cited a need to protect personnel matters at the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States.

But the landscape shifted significantly after Dossett sued his former employer. Speaking with forceful language, NCAI's attorney said in public -- and for the first time -- that there was a good cause for the organization to take action.

“I’d like to start by cutting to the chase," attorney Michael Kelley told the court. "John Dossett was disciplined for sexual harassment. Period."

“That is what he was punished for," Kelley continued. "He was punished for sexual harassment."

“That is a fact," he said.

The Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse at 1000 S.W. Third Ave. in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

According to Kelley, Dossett was found to have engaged in behaviors that NCAI deemed unacceptable -- especially in a workplace where issues such as protecting Native women from violence were at the forefront. The offensive conduct included the use of vulgar language and the use of sexually-charged language, he said.

"It affects Indian people directly," Kelley said as he explained to the court that Native women are victimized at higher rates than any other group, an issue that NCAI successfully addressed by pushing for the recognition of tribal sovereignty in the Violence Against Women Act.

Of Dossett's ability to present himself as an advocate on such issues in Indian Country, "It affects his credibility," Kelley said.

The comments, made in open court, were the most direct to date on a controversy that eroded confidence in NCAI as an effective champion for Indian people's needs. Barely a year ago, the organization's president was refusing to explain why Dossett had been reassigned and, eventually, ousted from his prominent legal post.

"Personnel actions -- we don't discuss in public. They become news fodder," Jefferson Keel, who declined to seek re-election as NCAI's president, said at the organization's winter session in February 2019 even as he promised to be "completely transparent" about future actions.

Indianz.Com was the first to report on Dossett's reassignment. An August 31, 2018, story explained that NCAI gave him a different title -- that of "senior counsel" -- following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. Dossett, who is non-Indian, had worked for the organization, headquartered at the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., since 1995.

The story, which won Indianz.Com an award from the Native American Journalists Association in 2019, led Dossett to sue the news website's parent corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc., in addition to NCAI, which owns Indian Country Today. High Country News, a non-profit organization, also was named as a defendant in the complaint. All three news outlets wrote about the turmoil at NCAI.

But in a dramatic turnaround, Dossett's attorney on Wednesday conceded that Ho-Chunk Inc. cannot be sued due to sovereign immunity. The corporation is an arm of the Winnebago Tribe and serves the Indian nation's economic development needs.

"I think you're out of the case," Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman told attorney Nicole Ducheneaux, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who is representing Ho-Chunk Inc. in the litigation.

"I agree with that," responded Ducheneaux, who founded one of the first law firms to be majority-owned by Native women.

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

As of Wednesday, however, Dossett would not agree to have Ho-Chunk Inc. voluntarily dismissed from the lawsuit, his attorney said. There was a reason for that -- and it appeared to be based solely on the optics of suing a prominent, award-winning tribal entity.

Arguing that one tribe lacks sovereign immunity might not go over well with potential clients in Indian Country, Dossett's attorney said.

"He wants to continue working as counsel for Native American tribes," attorney Scott Whipple, a solo practitioner, said of Dossett.

Dossett's reluctance to have Ho-Chunk Inc. taken off the case means the tribal entity must wait for a formal ruling on a previously-filed motion to dismiss the lawsuit. NCAI and High Country News must also wait for decisions on their respective motions to dismiss.

Beckerman, whose duties as a magistrate give her great leeway to address key matters in the case, did not give a timeline for any reports, rulings or recommendations. But she promised to take action "as soon as I can."

Portland, Oregon. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The hearing was the first in the case since the complaint was filed last August. Ho-Chunk Inc., the National Congress of American Indians and High Country News are represented by separate legal teams.

Indianz.Com, though it is owned by Ho-Chunk Inc., operates independently of the corporation. Indian Country Today, while owned by NCAI, also operates independently.

During the hearing, however, Dossett's attorney portrayed Indian Country Today in a different manner. He insisted that NCAI's former executive director, Jackie Pata, who left the organization following the turmoil, played a role in reviewing and approving the news outlet's first story about the turmoil.

When told about the claim after the hearing, Indian Country Today's award-winning editor Mark Trahant offered his own forceful denial. That never happened, he told Indianz.Com.

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