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Farmington — Some current and former Navajo Nation Council members have confirmed delegates misused the council's financial assistance program to benefit their family members and legislative staff, with one current delegate describing it as a "free for all."

A news release issued Tuesday by the tribe's special prosecutor provided some insight into the four-year investigation surrounding alleged abuse of the financial assistance program — or discretionary fund — by council delegates.

The special prosecutor — the law firm of Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom and Schoenburg of Tempe, Ariz. — stated that a number of current and former delegates are now assisting the investigation by explaining how the financial program was misused.

Former Navajo Nation council speaker Lawrence T. Morgan waits on Tuesday outside the judicial district office for an arraignment hearing at the District
Former Navajo Nation council speaker Lawrence T. Morgan waits on Tuesday outside the judicial district office for an arraignment hearing at the District Court in Window Rock, Ariz. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

Among those who are providing information to the special prosecutor is current delegate Edmund Yazzie, who represents Church Rock, Iyanbito, Mariano Lake, Pinedale, Smith Lake and Thoreau chapters in New Mexico.

The news release states that Yazzie told authorities "the financial assistance program became a 'free for all' where funds were often misused."

Yazzie explained that the misuse by delegates "violated the sacred trust" placed in lawmakers by the public and "violated" the tribe's fundamental law.

In January, the special prosecutor resolved all claims or potential claims against Yazzie.

Current delegate Nelson BeGaye told the special prosecutor that the way the program was operated was "wrong" and lacked "financial controls."

BeGaye, who represents Arizona's Lukachukai, Rock Point, Round Rock, Tsaile-Wheatfields and Tsé Ch'ízhí chapters, reached a settlement agreement for violating the tribe's ethics in government law.

As a result of this cooperation, the criminal and ethics complaints filed against some current and former delegates are moving toward resolution.

To date, criminal charges have been filed against 15 current and former delegates and against one former Legislative Branch employee, according to the news release.

Two former delegates pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery charges in February.

There were two pretrial hearings and two arraignments related to the criminal charges this week in Window Rock District Court in Window Rock, Ariz.

In addition to that, complaints against 12 former and current delegates for violating the tribe's ethics in government law were filed in the Navajo Nation Office of Hearings and Appeals.

Of those 12 cases, five have been settled while the rest are moving toward hearings.

"A number of other current and former council delegates have also agreed to cooperate and testify in the upcoming trials, further assisting the Navajo Nation in bringing this chapter to a close and demonstrating to office holders in the future that such conduct cannot be tolerated," the news release states.

The discretionary fund was created to allow delegates to provide financial assistance to tribal members facing hardship or emergency situations.

Between 2005 and 2010, the council appropriated approximately $32 million to the Office of the Speaker for the fund, according to complaints filed by the special prosecutor.

The first set of policies and procedures for the financial assistance program were adopted in 2007 by the former Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

Under those policies and procedures, financial assistance was limited to individuals in need with a priority for elderly Navajos on a fixed income, students, unemployed tribal members who are in emergency circumstances, and people needing assistance with burial costs.

Tribal members were limited to receiving assistance once within a 12-month period.

In complaints filed by the special prosecutor, the mistreatment of the program has been described as a system where Delegate A authorized money to a family member of Delegate B, with the understanding that Delegate B would, in return, authorize an equivalent financial amount to Delegate A's family member.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.