Indianz.Com > News > ‘Friends with benefits’: Former executive of National Congress of American Indians ousted in sexual harassment dispute
Dante Desiderio
Dante Desiderio, then serving as Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians, 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
‘Friends with benefits’
Former executive of National Congress of American Indians ousted in sexual harassment dispute
Wednesday, September 7, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians lost his job over his handling of a sexual harassment investigation, according to documents filed in court here.

Dante Desiderio, who was on the job for barely a year, was not the target of investigation, according to a complaint he filed in the nation’s capital. Instead, it was the non-Indian attorney he hired as NCAI’s general counsel who was accused of making a comment of a sexual nature to a younger woman employee.

Max Muller, according to Desiderio’s lawsuit, suggested he become “friends with benefits” to the employee during her first visit to NCAI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The incident — detailed for the first time in public — marks the second time in four years in which NCAI’s highest-ranking legal official was investigated for sexual harassment. In 2018, non-Indian attorney John Dossett was ousted after Indianz.Com first reported on the allegations that eventually cost him a role he held at the organization for two decades.

And it marks the second time in three years in which the top executive at the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States has been embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. In 2019, Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, departed NCAI following a four-month suspension connected to her handling of the Dossett investigation, which itself stemmed from an incident three years prior.

Amid the history of workplace concerns, NCAI acted much more quickly to address employee safety, according to the documents filed in court by Desiderio himself. The former CEO was suspended on the eve of the organization’s first in-person conference of the COVID-19 pandemic on June 10. He was out of a job two months later.

Dante Desidero v. National Congress of American Indians
In a lawsuit filed on June 24, 2022, Dante Desiderio demanded $5 million from the National Congress of American Indians for alleged employment discrimination stemming from his suspension as Chief Executive Officer of the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States. He is no longer employed by NCAI.

But in a lawsuit in which he is demanding $5 million from NCAI, Desiderio claims tribal leaders who serve on the organization’s executive committee retaliated against him by placing him on administrative leave while they investigated the sexual harassment allegation against Muller.

Desiderio was “humiliated and embarrassed” by NCAI’s “retaliatory action,” the complaint that was first filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on June 24 states. It goes on to allege that word of his suspension was “leaked to Indianz.Com,” which was the first to publish the news.

“This retaliatory action has resulted in public humiliation, damage to plaintiff’s reputation, embarrassment, mental distress, loss of life’s pleasures, and has damaged him in his trade and profession, which will result in loss of future earnings, and earning capacity,” Desiderio adds.

And in an even more incendiary claim, the lawsuit alleges the sexual harassment investigation was merely a “ruse” orchestrated by NCAI’s leadership in order to provide the basis for firing Muller and a second non-Indian employee named Pamela Fagan. Both individuals previously worked with Desiderio at NAFOA, where he served as executive director for more than 10 years.

The Indianz.Com story about Desiderio’s suspension in fact mentioned his hiring of Muller and Fagan as concerns connected to his tenure at NCAI. The complaint confirms that the former CEO was willing to go to bat for these non-Indian associates — even if it meant going against the wishes of the tribal leaders who serve on the organization’s governing board.

According to the lawsuit, Desiderio “protested against firing Muller and Fagan because they were non-Native American and explained their value to the organization. Plaintiff advised the executive committee that he would not discriminate against any potential employees, current employee, or contractors because they were not Native American.”

Desiderio further singles out two of the most prominent women leaders in Indian Country — NCAI President Fawn Sharp and NCAI Treasurer Shannon Holsey — as repeatedly pushing for the firing of Muller and Fagan. After he refused to carry out their supposed directives, he contends the organization engaged in “race-based termination” of his two colleagues.

According to Desiderio, NCAI’s executive committee “usurped” his authority by hiring the Quarles and Brady law firm to investigate the sexual harassment allegation against Muller. The firm was previously utilized by the organization in the wake of the prior workplace controversy.

Desiderio, on the other hand, said he had already enlisted an entirely different firm — O’Hagan Meyer — to investigate Muller. His complaint notes that his non-Indian associate “was very upset by the allegation and denied” making a statement of a harassing nature to the woman employee.

To address the alleged misconduct, Desiderio is demanding compensatory damages and punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish NCAI for its willful, deliberate, malicious and outrageous conduct and to deter NCAI, its executive committee members, and other employers from engaging in such misconduct in the future.”

NCAI has been in such a position before when it comes to a former employee. Along with Indianz.Com and High Country News, the inter-tribal advocacy organization successfully defeated a lawsuit filed by the non-Indian attorney John Dossett, who claimed that public discourse about the sexual harassment allegations against him damaged his reputation and his earning potential.

In the July 2020 ruling, a federal magistrate noted that “allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace are in the public interest even if the allegations are disputed (and of course, they usually are).”

Dossett had sought $6 million from NCAI, Indianz.Com and High Country News, all of which had published stories about the turmoil. When it comes to Desiderio and his $5 million demand for damages, the organization is prepared to defend itself once again.

Asked for comment on the litigation, a spokesperson told Indianz.Com: “NCAI strongly denies Mr. Desiderio’s characterization of the investigation initiated by NCAI’s Executive Committee, and intends to defend vigorously against his lawsuit.”

NCAI is already taking steps to end the dispute involving Desiderio. On September 2, the organization filed a motion to dismiss his lawsuit, pointing to the resolution of his claim that he was denied money he earned for paid time off (PTO).

According to a sworn declaration submitted by Larry Wright Jr., a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe who is now serving as interim CEO of NCAI, Desiderio was “paid out for the entirety of his unused PTO balance: 116.92 hours, or $15,458.17.” Pay stubs were submitted in court to substantiate the claim.

As a result, “Mr. Desiderio’s claim is moot and should be dismissed,” attorneys for NCAI wrote in the motion.

Alternatively, NCAI’s legal team is calling for the matter to be referred to arbitration. A copy of Desiderio’s employment contract in which he agreed to have “any dispute” resolved through a process of “binding arbitration” was submitted as well.

And when it comes to NCAI’s alleged mistreatment of two non-Indians who were hired by Desiderio, the attorneys insist the former CEO has no claim. Of Max Muller and Pamela Fagan, the motion points out that both were “independent contractors brought on by Mr. Desiderio to perform services for NCAI. At no time were they employees.”

NCAI submitted copies of consulting agreements that were entered into with Max Muller & Associates, a Kansas-based firm connected to Muller, and Audit Business Services, Inc., connected to Fagan, in which both were described as having “independent contractor status” at the organization.

Separately, NCAI is seeking to have the case removed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which is part of the federal judicial system. A notice filed on Friday, right before the Labor Day holiday weekend, cites Desiderio’s claim for $5 million, along with his residence in Virginia, as reasons for transferring the suit.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, though, is not convinced that the federal system is the correct place for the dispute. In an order on Tuesday, she has given NCAI until September 20 to explain why the organization should be allowed to remove the case from the Superior Court in D.C.

Desiderio first filed his complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on June 24, which he later amended on August 1. He formally served NCAI with his lawsuit on August 12, with a document showing it was received at the Embassy of Tribal Nations at 1516 P Street NW in D.C., at 2:04pm Eastern.

Later on August 12, NCAI announced that it had “parted ways” with Desiderio. The email arrived in the Indianz.Com inbox at 10:22pm that day.

Superior Court of the District of Columbia Documents
Desiderio Complaint and Jury Demand

Desiderio Amended Complaint and Jury Demand

NCAI Motion to Dismiss / Compel Arbitration

NCAI Declaration from Larry Wright Jr / Additional Exhibits

United States District Court for the District of Columbia Documents
NCAI Notice of Removal

NCAI Exhibits

Court Order on Removal of Lawsuit

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