$25 million libel suit filed against the Navajo Times for reckless and malicious reporting against school official
Investigator finds paper’s repeated claims of credit card use false
WINDOW ROCK – Exactly two months from the day the Navajo Nation received a formal notice of intent to sue, the superintendent of Tuba City Unified School District Dr. Eugene Thomas filed a $25 million libel suit against the Navajo Times Publishing, Company, today in Window Rock District Court, a tribal court. The Arizona Daily Sun, an off-reservation daily newspaper, and other parties have also been named in the suit.
Thomas is suing over libelous, hurtful statements and reporting over his leadership and qualifications as the Tuba City Unified School District Superintendent, which exposed him to “public hatred, contempt, and ridicule.” The inflammatory statements, he said, caused him “mental anguish” and ridicule.
The reporting began with a front page, top of the fold, Navajo Times story written by reporter Cindy Yurth on Dec. 13, with the inflammatory headline: “Old tricks.” The Navajo Times has since written five – almost unheard of for a superintendent story - front page stories since then. But last week after appealing to the Navajo Times board of directors and seeking intervention from the Native American Journalist Association, the Times published an essay by Thomas.
“Yurth claims she called me to comment on her first story, but there’s no record of it that she ever called the school, and I took this issue up with her in a Dec. 16 phone call,” Thomas said about an obvious initial bias by Ms. Yurth. “Her first story had some 20-30 wrong accusations, yet she refused to correct anything. After her first story ran I called her on Dec. 16th and told her a credit card was never used to purchase a plasma screen TV. But she never made a correction. Instead she continued reporting, with reckless disregard for the truth, in subsequent stories that I used a school credit card. She also never attempted to find out about the transaction even after I scheduled a meeting between her and officials from the school business office staff. My school staff awaited her visit and she never showed and never called. The allegation that I used a school credit card use was the most damming of her story and the one allegation in her story that the public accepted as truth. People were coming up to my friends, to my Navajo in-laws, to my wife, and asking if I really did use a credit card to buy a TV.”
Last week, on Thursday Feb. 21, an independent investigator’s report cleared Thomas of many of the allegations and clearly confirmed that a credit card was never used to purchase a TV.
The independent 22-page report conducted by a Tucson attorney, and commissioned by the TCUSD school board said:
“The Complainants have alleged that a “Sam’s Club” credit card in the name of the district was used to make the purchase. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Begay absolutely deny that a credit card was used. Mr. Begay denies that the district has a Sam’s Club credit card. Nevertheless, the Complainants, supported by some clerical personnel in the District’s business office, still maintain that a Sam’s Club credit card exists and was used. I asked for documentation to that effect. No Sam’s Club credit card was every produced by anyone, nor was any credit card account number or any documentation of that existence of such a card.”
The report continues: “While there surely is ‘credit,’ there still is no evidence of a credit card in the traditional meaning of that term.” The following is a direct quote from reporter Cindy Yurth’s initial Dec. 13th Navajo Times story. She wrote:
Ron Begay also has a copy of a $2,400 district purchase order signed by Joseph Begay for a 60-inch plasma screen TV that he says Thomas bought through the district’s employee purchase program.“But Thomas didn’t pay for the TV with deductions to this $100,000-a-year paycheck – he used a district credit card,” Ms. Yurth wrote.
“Under the program, employees with a year or more service can purchase items from specified dealers and then repay the district through payroll deductions.
“The Navajo Times tried and indicted me in their newspaper and they didn’t even have proof,” Thomas said about the Navajo Times’ reporting. “I’m not the only one they have done this too. They have destroyed the character and reputation of so many people over the years and no one has ever initiated legal action against them, as far as everyone I’ve spoken to have told me. They cannot continue to repeatedly destroy people’s lives and career. Like everyone else, they must be held accountable. The paper is owned by the Navajo people, not by the questionable self-serving people who run the newspaper.”
Ms. Yurth also wrote a slew of malicious innacuries about Thomas’s tenure at Dilcon Community School, a grant school north of Winslow, Ariz on the Navajo reservation.
“Thomas was also fired as executive director of Dilcon Community School -- ordered by a Dilkon Chapter resolution to give up his district-subsidized house and leave town…” she wrote on Dec. 13th.
“I was terminated as the school director,” explained Thomas. “But I was never ordered to leave town as Ms. Yurth wrote. “In fact, community members called an illegal chapter meeting at which a chapter resolution was illegally adopted. One day after this illegal chapter meeting the Navajo Nation in a letter to the chapter declared the chapter meeting: “Invalid and unofficial.” Officials were told they were not being compensated for that meeting and a video recording of the illegal chapter meeting exists. Cindy Yurth never had this official letter by the Navajo Nation, nor the video taping, and was probably never told of their existence,” he said.
“She also completely mischaracterized why I was terminated at Dilcon Community School and made it appear as a financial wrong doing,” Thomas said. “Once again, the document she does not have is that an audit report exists of the entire situation and it clearly specifies the conditions and reason the school took their action. And it had nothing to do with financial wrong doing as she carelessly wrote.”
“There’s a whole slew of other inaccuracies which we will show in court, and before a jury, with extensive documentation,” he said. The 17-page complaint filed today states:
“…defendants knew of the falsity of the statements at the time of publication, or published them with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statements because defendants did not have any documentation to support the libelous publication although defendants could easily have obtained them, failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the allegations, and failed to talk to the plaintiffs; and defendants received the information from a source who had a close personal relationship with the reporters and who was retaliating against Thomas.”
“At the end of my editorial in last week’s issue of the Navajo Times the editor wrote an editor’s note stating they had ‘extensive documentation’ to support Ms. Yurth’s stories,” said Thomas. “How can they make such an untruthful claim.”
Named in the suit also is Navajo Times reporter Cindy Yurth, Rosanda Suetopka-Thayer, Flagstaff Publishing Co., Arizona Daily Sun reporter Cindy Cole, and Ronald Begay.
The libel suit is quite possible a first for the tribally owned publication which gained independence as a tribal corporation in 2004.
Contact: Dr. Eugene Thomas, (928) 637-5800 (cell #)