ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The findings of an investigation initiated by a U.S. senator into the spending of federal housing grants on the nation's largest American Indian reservation suggest mismanagement resulted in cost overruns and delays.
Top Navajo Nation officials in a statement issued late Thursday detailed the findings along with numerous recommendations made by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The recommendations include reducing the federal government's allocation to the tribe for new homes, streamlining land acquisition and permitting processes, and increasing site visits by federal inspectors.
The Navajo Nation spans parts of Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.
McCain's office also is recommending that the Navajo Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provide annual performance reports that include clear data on how many houses have been built or modernized, and how many of those are rental units or turned over to owners.
According to the findings, the housing authority over 10 years received more than $803 million in federal block grant funding and built only 1,110 homes. There were also concerns about board members misusing income generated by rental properties.
McCain said the authority's lack of progress can't be reconciled with the fact that the agency is supported by 350 employees and spends about 15 percent of its annual allocation under the grant program on planning and administration.
The poor administration of grant funds by the authority "has exposed the program to an excessive risk of waste, fraud and abuse," the senator said.
Navajo President Russell Begaye acknowledged that the housing authority has been put under the microscope by both the federal government and the Navajo people.
"We take the report and the issues raised very seriously," he said. "Our No. 1 concern has always been that the Navajo people receive adequate housing."
However, Begaye and other tribal leaders criticized the suggestion that Congress cap or reduce the federal government's allocation for new homes on the Navajo Nation.
"We feel this is a mistake because our people who need these homes shouldn't pay the price for the seemingly inefficient operation or failure of (the Navajo Housing Authority) to build homes," Begaye said.
The inquiry was triggered by an investigative series published by the Arizona Republic beginning in December. The newspaper reported that the tribal agency at one point built up an unspent reserve of nearly $500 million, and while few homes were built, key projects that did get built were never occupied or had severe problems.
Officials with the housing authority have disputed some of the allegations leveled in recent months in letters to McCain and tribal leadership, noting that the federal funding was also used to modernize nearly 880 older homes over a four-year period and that group homes and other community resource centers were built to benefit Navajos.
Senate investigators did not uncover any criminal conduct, but they suggested the findings warrant an independent review.
Regional officials with HUD initiated their own review earlier this year. A draft report obtained by the Associated Press says the agency's investigators found no concerns with the authority's regulatory compliance or performance.
Tribal officials have since adopted legislation revamping the housing commission and new members have been appointed to the board.
Commissioner Kris Beecher said the new board understands the serious nature of the findings.
"The Navajo people are depending on the board to create a new vision and leadership standard for (the Navajo Housing Authority). We own this challenge and are 100 percent committed to meeting it head on," Beecher said.