Window Rock, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation Council voted Friday to place Speaker Johnny Naize on paid administrative leave.
Naize vowed to fight the decision, saying in a statement issued late Friday that he has no choice but to seek an immediate declaration from the Navajo courts that the vote was illegal.
The council's vote came after the tribe's special prosecutor in December filed 11 bribery charges and one conspiracy charge against Naize. The criminal complaints allege Naize misused the council's discretionary fund, which provided financial assistance to needy constituents.
Twenty of the council's 24 members attended Friday's special session in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. Of those, 12 voted to place Naize on leave. Seven did not vote, and Delegate Edmund Yazzie, who served as speaker pro tem during the session, abstained.
Delegates approved a motion made by Delegate Leonard Tsosie to place Naize on administrative leave, rather than removing him from office. They also approved a directive for Delegate LoRenzo Bates to serve as pro tem speaker, meaning he will serve as the interim speaker until the council appoints a new speaker. There's no deadline for that action.
Bates is the chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee and represents the Nenahnezad, Newcomb, San Juan, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K'aan and Upper Fruitland chapters.
Tsosie issued his amendment to place Naize on leave after the council spent almost two hours in executive session. Delegate Jonathan Nez motioned for the session so delegates could talk about the issue.
"The removal is the harsher action, so the administrative leave, I agree, is a compromise and is the lesser penalty," Tsosie said. "K'é is still there."
K'é is the Navajo etiquette focused on respect and love so harmony is maintained in a family, extended family and a community.
Tsosie's motion concerning Naize caused debate on the council floor, and delegates requested advice from Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff and Mariana Kahn, the acting chief legislative counsel.
Both women said the council was breaking new ground because no speaker before Naize had ever been placed on leave.
They also cited Navajo law, which gives the council the power to place the president or vice president on leave with or without pay, if there is evidence that person breached his or her fiduciary trust and if placing that person on leave is in the best interest of the Navajo people.
Seven delegates walked out of the council chamber during the debate on Tsosie's amendment in a possible attempt to end the special session by losing quorum. But the session continued with 13 delegates.
Friday was the second time delegates considered legislation calling for Naize's removal. The first bill did not receive the 16 votes needed to pass during the winter session in January.
If the council had approved the bill to remove Naize, he would have had to vacant the speaker's office, along with the powers and authorities the office carries. He would have continued serving as the delegate for the Blue Gap-Tachee, Cottonwood-Tselani, Low Mountain, Many Farms and Nazlini chapters in Arizona.
Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd once again sponsored the removal bill and argued Navajo law mandates the speaker be a "good standing" member of the council.
Shepherd proposed the second bill after Naize was named a co-conspirator in the complaint against former delegate Raymond Joe, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in connection to abusing the discretionary fund.
Joe also admitted he entered into agreements with Naize to provide financial assistance to his family members.
Shepherd mentioned those actions when he addressed the council on Friday.
"Basically, it comes down to how do we (make) ourselves accountable to each other?" Shepherd said.
During Naize's address to the council, he said the council hired the special prosecutor to investigate two business dealings the tribe entered into. But, Naize said, the prosecutor instead took advantage of the delegates to build cases against them.
"My entire years on the speaker's chair, I've said before that I have held it with great respect and it's sacred to me," Naize said.Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.