The State Bar of Arizona has repudiated charges against an attorney who was hired by the Hopi Tribe but later criticized by a former Hopi tribal chairman for alleged misrepresentation in a million-dollar legal services contract.
The bar association said it has “determined that an investigation is not warranted at this time and our file has been closed” in a letter to Benjamin Nuvamsa, the former chairman who challenged the agreement between attorney Robert J. Lyttle and the Hopi Tribe.
The State Bar also said “there does not appear to be anything overtly deceptive” in fees the tribe paid and the use of other attorneys to conduct legal work for the tribe, contending that the issues constitute “a matter better addressed to the Tribal Council as your disagreement or dissatisfaction” with the arrangements “is insufficient to establish ethical misconduct.”
Nuvamsa said that several Hopi people besides himself signed the complaint to the State Bar and that the complaint was sent at the request of many others. He said the most important issue centered on Lyttle’s year-old contract to act as general counsel to the tribe through a law firm that does not exist in either Arizona or Oklahoma, where Lyttle formerly practiced law.
Nuvamsa noted that even if the Tribal council authorized payment, “that does not make it right” and added it is a misrepresentation than Lyttle has a law firm. Nuvamsa charged that Lyttle uses a post office box in Carefree, Arizona that is not an “actual physical address.”
The former chairman also said that, unlike the practice in some other tribes, Hopi law requires the tribe’s general counsel to be a member of the Arizona State Bar. The bar, however, said that Lyttle is a member in good standing of the Oklahoma Bar, as authorized by a tribal resolution, and his “use of the designation ‘firm’ is not sufficient to establish an ethical violation.”
Curtis Honanie, Hopi Tribe chief of staff, said Nuvamsa did not represent the Hopi Tribe and the State Bar’s quick response
to the complaint “is an indication of the lack of credibility and absurdity of the accusations. And this process reaffirms that Mr. Lyttle can continue to serve as legal counsel to the Hopi Tribe.” The complaint was filed May 2 and the bar responded May 9.
Lyttle, a member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, said, “Hopefully, the result of this third-party review will end the negativity and what I perceive to be personal vendettas against me, the chairman, and members of the tribal council.”
Both Honanie’s and Lyttle’s remarks were in a press release issued by Scott Hanson, HMA Public Relations, Phoenix, who said he is a spokesman for the Hopi Tribe on the current issue.
Nuvamsa also charged that Lyttle’s billing “is so high as to be unreasonable for a tribe like the Hopi Tribe, which does not have a casino and whose population suffers from pervasive poverty and high unemployment.” He said Lyttle and his associates “have been billing in large increments of hours without sufficient specific detail for the Hope Tribe to be able to determine and review the work they are actually performing.”
The Arizona State Bar only addressed Lyttle’s invoicing practices “and dismissed the complaint simply because the invoices were already authorized for payment by the Hopi Tribe,” he said, but the denial “does not mean that the exorbitant fees charged by Robert Lyttle and other attorneys are reasonable, allowable and acceptable to members of the Hopi Tribe.”
Tribal members who filed the complaint did so “with deep concern for proper use of our limited financial resources” and with no animosity against Lyttle, he said.