Transparency demanded in NCAI’s handling of staff lawyer and #MeToo allegations

The National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel and Executive Director Jacqueline Pata. Keel responded Thursday to former NCAI employees bringing claims of sexual harassment by former attorney John Dossett that they say were mishandled internally. ICT file photos.

Former employee details allegation; NCAI president establishes ad hoc committee, workplace culture audit

The National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel responded Thursday to former NCAI employees bringing claims of sexual harassment by former attorney John Dossett that they say were mishandled internally.

Tribes have been coming forward asking about transparency, and two tribal leaders, including Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and Kevin DuPuis, the chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have submitted resolutions asking for the suspension of executive director Jacqueline Pata until a independent investigation is completed.

The National Congress of American Indians will be convening in Denver for its 75th annual convention, which takes place October 21-26.

In an eight-page statement written by former NCAI attorney John Dossett and posted to Indianz.com, the former attorney outlines a series of explanations for allegations made against him. Dossett claims a former employee Nicole Hallingstad had an ‘axe to grind,’ he had only been assisting an intoxicated employee to her hotel room and never made a comment about going up to hotel room to ‘beat off.’

One former NCAI employee told Kevin Abourezk of Indianz.com that she filed the sexual harassment complaint against Dossett earlier this year. “John Dossett’s offhand comment about masturbation was a violation and it was unwelcome. The incident struck me as so deeply inappropriate that I shared it privately with 2 colleagues within 2 hours of its occurrence, and 1 colleague the morning after—still disturbed by it. Each individual has memory of this and has corroborated my account,” she said. “... his statement falsely describes the incident at issue and demonstrates alarming actions on the part of NCAI's senior management, particularly executive director Jackie Pata, whom some tribal leaders are blaming for mishandling the matter.”

“Never would I have imagined that its contents would be shared directly with the alleged harasser, nor would those contents then be shared — verbatim — with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator [Chuck] Schumer’s Office, and countless others John Dossett copied on his email,” the former employee told Indianz. "To see the words I wrote so publicly displayed is numbing, nauseating.” The former employee was granted anonymity by Indianz.com out of concern for her privacy.

Dossett continued to ascertain he was never given a chance to make his case when Hallingstad reported him to NCAI. He also claimed when he asked Pata if he would be able to ‘respond to false allegations’ Pata had replied ‘never.’

In his email statement, Dossett wrote:

On May 2, 2018 I received a disciplinary memo in my personnel file. I didn’t recognize myself in the allegations of “unprofessional and inappropriate behavior, including yelling, bullying, being disrespectful, speaking over colleagues, insulting and derogatory emails, and sexuallycharged comments.” I work from Oregon, and my interactions with most of the staff come only at formal public meetings, and on conference calls. I don’t make sexually charged comments. I don’t yell or bully over the phone. I am not saying that my behavior is perfect. However, most of these complaints are exaggerated or untrue.

On October 11th NCAI President Jefferson Keel issued a public letter based upon the allegations made in connection to the employment of John Dossett and the internal handling of affairs by the NCAI.

The letter reads as follows:

Dear NCAI Members,

I know that many of you are concerned by the recent news accounts you have read about NCAI. I understand that you would like greater transparency, and that you may be frustrated by our inability to legally share more details about specific allegations or personnel matters. To some, our silence has raised questions about whether we are adequately addressing the situation. I want to assure you that we are. NCAI is committed to providing a safe and supportive workplace for all of its employees. To that end, I want to share information on the actions that NCAI has taken concerning the issues that have been raised:

Ad hoc committee established: The NCAI Executive Committee has established an ad hoc committee composed of tribal leaders who serve on the Executive Committee to review how allegations of misconduct have been addressed previously by the organization. The ad hoc committee’s work is currently underway and the report of its findings is forthcoming.

Workplace culture audit initiated: We have also hired an outside firm to conduct an audit of NCAI’s workplace culture, which will include interviews with staff and other stakeholders, to get a better sense of the current work climate at NCAI and make recommendations. This audit is currently underway.

NCAI will move swiftly to implement the recommendations that these two processes identify. In the meantime, we have taken other actions that we know are necessary to strengthen NCAI as an organization:

Increasing HR capacity: NCAI has engaged an HR consultant to review processes, train staff, and be available should a need arise for external reviews in the future.

Staff and executive committee trainings on investigating workplace misconduct: NCAI has hired an outside expert to train several staff and board representatives on best practices for conducting workplace misconduct investigations. This has been scheduled and will take place soon.

In addition, earlier this year, we took several other steps designed to strengthen NCAI’s workplace:

External review of NCAI’s complaints process: NCAI hired an external expert to review its policies and procedures for handling complaints and implemented updates as recommended.

Organization-wide trainings on harassment and complaint policies: NCAI held trainings at all levels of the organization on NCAI’s harassment and complaint policies and the specific responsibilities of staff, supervisors, and executive committee members under those policies.

Supervisory training: NCAI required all supervisors to attend a day-long supervisory training.

Many of these actions were initiated before the first news article was published, and some have evolved based upon the concerns and suggestions you have shared with us.

In addition, last week NCAI confirmed in statements to the media that John Dossett no longer works for the organization. While he and others have elected to release public statements detailing claims and allegations and to share confidential internal documents, they have done so without NCAI’s approval or authorization.

These actions have violated the privacy of NCAI employees, and are contrary to the manner in which staff are treated when they raise concerns at NCAI. NCAI must follow a standard that protects its employees’ privacy and shields the organization from unnecessary liability. This is the right thing to do legally, but more importantly, ethically.

Part of maintaining a positive, healthy work environment is providing staff a space where they feel comfortable bringing workplace issues to our attention without fear that their concerns will be released to the media for dissection by the public or otherwise shared with outside sources.

NCAI stands by its employees and our responsibility to respect their privacy even in the face of outside pressure to do otherwise. However, in the interest of transparency, I want to share what I can with you about NCAI’s response to the specific incidents that have been highlighted in the news.

Earlier this year, NCAI hired an external investigator who investigated two specific allegations of sexual harassment against John Dossett, one of which had been the subject of an earlier internal investigation. In conducting this investigation, the external investigator spoke with many current and former employees, including some former employees who learned about the investigation and requested an opportunity to speak. The investigation concluded with recommendations that NCAI promptly implemented.

Some of you have asked for more specific information, such as providing internal investigation findings and outcomes for review. But to comply with these requests would jeopardize those parties who have chosen privacy over publicity.

As NCAI addresses these issues and resolves concerns, please know that we will continue to work relentlessly to earn your confidence, and, at the same time, ensure that our focus at every level of the organization remains on strengthening our service to you, our Members, and the values we all hold most dear.

When I was elected, I ran on a campaign to bring results to Indian Country through NCAI. This pledge is part of who I am, and I feel confident that this current situation is no different. NCAI will resolve these issues through this process, and NCAI will emerge from it stronger than before. I thank you for giving me your time and ask for your patience as we address these issues in a caring and purposeful manner. Indian Country deserves a strong NCAI and that is what we will provide.

Respectfully,
Jefferson Keel
NCAI President

The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.

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