Jury acquits former Navajo official in COVID testing case
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A Navajo Nation jury on Friday acquitted the tribe’s former top financial officer of charges that she misrepresented information about a company hired to do rapid COVID-19 testing on the reservation.
Former Controller Pearline Kirk was tried on one count of obtaining a signature by deception, and two counts each of paying or receiving Navajo Nation funds for services not rendered and falsification.
“I felt pretty comfortable that we won, but until you hear the words, ‘not guilty,’ you just never know,” her attorney David Jordan said. “A lot of tears, a lot of relief. She’s really been through a lot the last couple of years. This is a pretty big vindication.”
The Navajo Nation Department of Justice alleged Kirk violated the law in advising the tribal government to hire Agile Technologies Group LLC., to conduct rapid testing based on a recommendation from Kirk’s longtime mentor and confidant.
The department alleged the company wasn’t qualified, but received more than $3 million for pandemic-related services, including testing for about 110 employees in the controller’s office. The funding came from the Navajo Nation’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said Friday she was disappointed with the verdict.
“Nonetheless, my resolve to demand integrity and accountability from our public officials on behalf of the Navajo people remains absolute,” she said in a text message to The Associated Press. “We will use this as a learning opportunity to strengthen our response to abuses of authority and white collar crime, and reestablish the Navajo Nation Public Integrity Task Force to minimize waste, fraud and abuse on the Nation.”
The complaints against Kirk were filed in Window Rock District Court. The two-week trial took place at the tribal court in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Navajo Nation’s vast reservation extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
Jury trials on the Navajo Nation — the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. — are rare, even more so now because the courts still aren’t open to the public because of COVID protections. In January, the Navajo Nation rescinded the last of its COVID measures by saying that people do not have to wear a mask in public.
The Navajo Nation Council removed Kirk as the tribal controller in May 2021 after prosecutors first filed complaints against her. She had served in the job since early 2017.
Kirk maintained she did nothing wrong and was trying to keep her employees safe.
The Navajo Nation at one point had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S.