Indianz.Com > News > National Congress of American Indians loses top executive after a year
Dante Desiderio
Former National Congress of American Indians Chief Executive Officer Dante Desiderio appears before a roundtable of the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth in Washington, D.C., on April 7, 2022. Photo: FairGrowthCmte
National Congress of American Indians loses top executive after a year
‘It sounds like they’re cleaning house’
Monday, August 15, 2022

The nation’s oldest and largest inter-tribal advocacy organization has “parted ways” with its highest-ranking employee, who had been on the job for barely a year.

In a statement released late on Friday evening, the National Congress of American Indians disclosed the departure of Dante Desiderio as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer. No explanation was given for the decision.

“For almost 80 years, it has been our utmost interest and priority to serve as a leading voice for tribal sovereignty interests and initiatives. To continue to better serve our diverse sovereign Tribal Nations, we have parted ways with Mr. Desiderio,” NCAI said in the statement, which did not use the full name of the now-former employee.

The statement reminded Indian Country that “Mr. Desiderio” had been placed on “temporary administrative leave” two months ago, on the eve of NCAI’s first in-person meeting in more than two years. Indianz.Com was the first to report on the CEO’s absence at the key gathering, with a story on June 10 citing high turnover among employees as one of the major complaints against the chief executive.

In the days since the suspension, NCAI hasn’t publicly explained why Desiderio was placed on leave in the first place. At the time, President Fawn Sharp said the organization wasn’t in “a position to share more information” about the status of the highest-ranking employee.

The new statement falls into the same category. The organization, which has now gone through three chief executives in three years, remains silent about the reasons behind Desiderio’s permanent exit from NCAI.

“Our organization values accountability and has an ambitious agenda and we’re excited to strengthen our organization, build on our successes and achieve our strategic goals,” NCAI said.

But Desiderio isn’t the only high-ranking person who has gone out the door at NCAI’s Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C. Two key employees — both of whom had connections to the former CEO — are no longer on board, either.

“It sounds like they’re cleaning house over there,” one Indian law and policy expert said of NCAI.

Pamela Fagan, who had been serving as Director of Operations, and Max Muller, one of whose titles was General Counsel, are no longer listed as employees on NCAI’s staff page. Both are non-Natives who had been brought over from NAFOA, where Desiderio had served as executive director for more than 10 years.

Fagan and Muller had been named in the June 10 story on Indianz.Com, with critics of the organization citing their presence as a sign of Desiderio’s failure to hire Native people for high-ranking jobs at the organization.

NCAI also has lost its human resources manager, another non-Native who had been on the job for only a couple of months, overseeing the hiring of new employees. Her name still appears on archived versions of an open position whose deadline was recently extended.

And just last month, Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, stepped down as director of NCAI’s Policy Research Center after more than five years with the organization. But unlike the situation with Desiderio and other key employees, this departure was far more friendly in nature, having been in the works well in advance.

According to NCAI, Fagan’s exit from the organization was similarly based on timing. Despite her title as Director of Operations and her proximity to Desiderio, she had only been a contract employee.

“Ms. Fagan provided contract services to NCAI pursuant to a contracting agreement with Audit Business Services, Inc.,” a spokesperson told Indianz.Com. “NCAI’s contract ended with the company on June 30, 2022.”

NCAI would not comment directly on the status of any other departed employees, echoing a call for “privacy” that had been voiced after Desiderio was placed on leave.

“NCAI generally does not comment publicly on personnel matters out of respect for employees’ privacy,” the spokesperson said.

Another complaint connected to Desiderio centered on the high turnover among employees. During his tenure, 19 people left NCAI — meaning at least one person left every month since his hiring as CEO.

Altogether, about half of the organization’s work force has seen turnover in the last year. NCAI typically has about 38 employees.

For now, Larry Wright, Jr., a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe, holds the title of “interim” CEO of NCAI. He was brought on board as Director of Leadership Engagement in late 2021, having previously served as the Vice President of the Great Plains Region, an elected position on the organization’s executive committee.

Friday night’s statement about Desiderio’s departure was attributed to the executive committee, which consists of NCAI’s President, 1st Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer, along with the Vice Presidents representing 12 regions of Indian Country.

Larry Wright Jr.
Larry Wright Jr. served as chairman of the Ponca Tribe for more than a decade before he joined the National Congress of American Indians as Director of Leadership Engagement. He is seen here speaking at the grand opening of the tribe’s new clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 30, 2021. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Desiderio, who hails from the Sappony Tribe, joined NCAI as Chief Executive Officer on May 11, 2021. He was only the second person to hold the title of CEO, which was retitled from Executive Director following a drawn-out sexual harassment and management scandal that undermined confidence in the organization.

The first person to serve as CEO was Kevin Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community. He only lasted 18 months, telling Indianz.Com that he left because he had helped NCAI return to a “rock solid place” following the turmoil associated with the earlier controversy.

Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, had served as NCAI’s top executive for nearly 18 years, a record for any Indian organization. She departed in February 2019 after being placed on leave in connection with a sexual harassment scandal that led to the ouster of the non-Indian attorney who led the organization’s legal department.

Following the scandal, NCAI promoted Derrick Beetso, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, to the position of General Counsel. He was the first Native person to serve as the highest legal official in the organization’s history.

But less than two weeks after Desiderio came on board at the Embassy of Tribal Nations, Beetso was fired, for reasons that the organization has never publicly disclosed.

Sharp, who serves as Vice President of the Quinault Nation, is in her second term as President of NCAI. She won re-election at the organization’s annual meeting in October 2021, which took place virtually due to COVID-19.

NCAI stuck to the virtual format for its subsequent executive council winter session, which is usually held in Washington, D.C. The organization’s mid-year meeting in Alaska, the one where Desiderio was absent, was the first in-person gathering since the onset of the pandemic more than two years ago.

Sharp, whose two-year term expires in 2023, will oversee NCAI’s 79th annual convention later this year. The meeting is due to take place October 30 through November 4, in Sacramento, California.

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