Former NCAI CEO files $5 million human rights & labor law claims against top Native advocacy org
National Congress of American Indians says Dante Desiderio's arguments -- based in part on sexual harassment investigations -- should be dismissed or arbitrated.
WASHINGTON — In new filings with the D.C. Superior Court, Civil Division, the recently terminated CEO of the National Congress of Americans (NCAI) Dante Desiderio makes allegations against the organization’s executive committee, claiming he was retaliated against for choosing not to discriminate, and that he was not paid properly.
In August, NCAI announced that it had “parted ways” with Desiderio after placing him on “temporary administrative leave” in June.
Intrigue has been high surrounding Desiderio’s departure, and NCAI has since tried to maintain control over the narrative largely through public silence, as it continues to hemorrhage employees and deal with internal strife. It has also stopped updating and has removed its staff listing page.
These are especially sensitive times at the nation’s largest Native advocacy organization, due largely to fallout from recent sexual harassment investigations. Just before the pandemic, the organization had weathered a major sexual harassment scandal involving its former longtime general counsel John Dossett and the handling of said scandal by former executive director Jacqueline Pata, who left the organization in 2019 after 18 years of service. Her role in addressing allegations against Dossett played a factor in her departure.
Dossett was fired in October 2018, and he later sued Ho-Chunk, Inc., the owner of Indianz.com, for what he said was false reporting involving sexual harassment. He also sued NCAI, which at that time was the publisher of Indian Country Today, and he sued High Country News. In July 2020, his claims against Indianz.com and the other news websites were dismissed by a federal judge in Oregon.
The gossip mill in Indian Country had been running rampant about Desiderio’s sudden exit this summer, as various people speculated that he may have committed sexual harassment at some point during his approximately one-year tenure, which began in May 2021.
There was also speculation that Desiderio’s citizenship in the state-recognized Sappony Tribe was bothersome to some NCAI leaders because they felt he did not best represent federally recognized tribes in his advocacy. The majority of NCAI’s member tribes are federally recognized, and they have vastly different needs than state recognized tribes.
Finally, some were bothered by Desiderio’s hiring of two non-Native employees for top NCAI positions who previously worked with him when he directed the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA).
It turns out that the first and third issues did cause problems for Desiderio at NCAI, according to filings by his lawyer, Brendan Klaproth, of Klaproth Law PLLC — but not because of any sexual harassment committed by Desiderio himself.
Rather, Desiderio claims that the executive committee of NCAI disliked his handling of a legal investigation involving alleged sexual harassment by the non-Native general counsel Desiderio had hired, Max Muller, formerly of NAFOA. Muller replaced Derrick Beetso, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, in this position after Beetso was let go by Desiderio in late-May 2021. Beetso was reportedly the first Native top lawyer for NCAI.
NCAI’s executive committee ultimately hired a second law firm, Quarles & Brady, to investigate — a “complete waste,” according to Desiderio’s complaint, which allegedly exposed NCAI to “additional liability.”
Desiderio argues that Quarles & Brady conducted a “sham investigation” because it had “demonstrated its bias against the accused (Muller).” The implication is that Quarles & Brady for some reason wanted a Native in the position and/or has another unexplained beef with Muller.
Desiderio further claims that his leadership came under “scrutiny” when he hired two non-Native people he had previously worked with at NAFOA. He says he opposed orders to terminate them and the “race-based” decision of NCAI leaders to do so.
He additionally alleges NCAI violated labor law by not honoring his contractually agreed upon 5-percent yearly raise and other wage-related agreements.
“As a result of Plaintiff’s opposition to the unlawful practices of the NCAI through its Executive Committee, NCAI retaliated against Plaintiff by placing him on administrative leave….,” the complaint states. “The damage to Plaintiff’s reputation both personally and professionally by the actions of NCAI is significant.”
When he was CEO, Desiderio says in his complaint that he hired Muller as general counsel of NCAI and Pamela Fagan as director of operations.
Soon, a person who works at NCAI — referred to as Jane Doe in the complaint — alleged to Desiderio that Muller had sexually harassed her by saying he looked forward to being “friends with benefits, if she was interested.” However, she didn’t want anything to happen to Muller, and she was comfortable working with him, according to the complaint.
Desiderio says in his filing that he discussed the allegation with Muller, and Muller was “very upset” and “denied” it. Muller has not responded to request for comment.
Still, Desiderio says he ultimately hired the O’Hagan Meyer law firm to investigate. The investigation was completed on May 23, 2022, and its findings were sent to NCAI President Fawn Sharp, “but she refused to review it,” according to the complaint, which says by then that the executive committee had learned of the allegation from Jane Doe herself and was “rattled.”
That is when NCAI chose to hire Quarles & Brady, according to the filing.
Desiderio alleges that the only solution Sharp and the committee would agree to was to terminate Muller.
Desiderio alleges that he continued to champion O’Hagan Meyer’s investigation, and he called for an end to the investigation by Quarles & Brady, which was allegedly making NCAI’s insurance company unhappy, especially due to the previous sexual harassment issues involving Dosset and Pata’s handling of them.
Desiderio was ultimately told by NCAI that his CEO powers were not being superseded by the Quarles & Brady investigation, as he was allegedly a “key witness” to the Muller situation.
It is around this time that Desiderio claims NCAI leaders then heightened their complaints about his hiring of non-Natives Muller and Fagan in the first place.
Desiderio claims that Sharp and other committee members in late May and early June told him to fire Muller and Fagan and “replace them with Native Americans,” but he would not do so on anti-discrimination grounds. He also felt Fagan was being unfairly brought into a sexual harassment investigation that had nothing to do with her.
Desiderio claims that the D.C. Human Rights Act protected Muller and Fagan from being fired. He also claims that NCAI did not want to hire them as regular employees, but instead as independent contractors.
By June 8, Desiderio alleges Quarles & Brady was saying that he was part of its sexual harassment investigation, which he says contradicts what he was told by the firm at the outset of its investigation.
Desiderio was put on paid administrative leave on June 10, and he was not allowed to participate in the organization’s June conference in Alaska. He wasn’t told this until he had landed in Alaska.
“Presumably, the results of the second, sham investigation will result in the preferred outcome by Fawn Sharp and the Executive Committee — the termination of Plaintiff for cause,” according to Desiderio’s complaint. “This is all a ruse designed to circumvent Plaintiff’s authority over personnel issues….”
Due to his hasty, undesired exit from NCAI, Desiderio alleges he has experienced “public humiliation, damage to [his] reputation, embarrassment, mental distress, loss of life’s pleasures,” and further damages, including loss of future financial earnings.
He asks that he not face discrimination or retaliation and that he be awarded compensatory and punitive damages.
Moreover, he alleges that NCAI violated the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law by refusing to honor his 5-percent annual pay raise and other lost wages, including paid leave plus lawyers’ fees.
Desiderio and his lawyer have not responded to requests for comment.
NCAI is represented by Jillian Ambrose and Sadina Montani, both of Crowell & Moring LLP. They have also not responded to requests for comment.
NCAI filed on Sept. 2 that the case should be heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, after which Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly was assigned to the case. The organization has claimed in previous court documents that part or all of Desiderio’s claims should be dismissed or arbitrated, arguing that they are lacking and/or moot.
U.S. District Court filings indicate Desiderio is suing NCAI for $5 million.
Kollar-Kotelly has ordered NCAI to show cause on or before Sept. 20 for why this case should not remain in D.C. Superior Court. An initial hearing had been scheduled for Sept. 23 in D.C. Superior Court.
Desiderio’s original contract called for him to be employed by NCAI as CEO from May 11, 2021 to May 11, 2024.
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