Tribal lawmakers were split almost evenly Tuesday, 12 to 11, on a bill to oust Johnny Naize as the legislative leader. The bill fell short of the 16 votes, or supermajority, required for approval.
Naize has denied wrongdoing in what prosecutors say was a scheme to divert public money to the families of tribal officials. He urged his colleagues meeting in Window Rock for their winter session to adhere to the Navajo principle of kinship in respecting one another and remaining unified.
Naize told The Associated Press before the vote that whatever the outcome, "you have to forgive people. Whatever happens, you have to leave it in the past."
The council recessed for the day after the vote that had delegates debating scripture, due process, personal vendettas, integrity and the chain of events that led to Naize and others being charged in an investigation into the use of tribal discretionary funds. Naize, whose term ends in January 2015, reassumes his role Wednesday in presiding over the session.
Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd, who sponsored the legislation, said his intent was to preserve the integrity of the speaker's post and the image of the Tribal Council.
"This isn't a matter of due process," Shepherd said. "Due process is being afforded to Mr. Naize through a court of law."
Prosecutors say Naize conspired with several other current and former council delegates to divert more than $73,000 from the discretionary spending fund intended for student financial aid, people facing extreme hardship, assistance for elderly Navajo and other uses. They say Naize's family received $36,550 in exchange for his providing $36,900 to members of other families.
Naize is scheduled to be arraigned in March on 10 counts of bribery and a conspiracy charge. About 20 people, mostly former and current Tribal Council delegates, have been charged criminally or accused of ethics violations in the investigation.
The talk among council delegates Tuesday didn't focus on the specifics of the charges Naize is facing. Instead, some delegates questioned whether it was proper to judge Naize while the criminal case is pending, while others said they had an obligation to police themselves and keep the best interests of the Navajo people in mind.
"There's a difference in terms of principle," Delegate Dwight Witherspoon said. "The principle of kinship that we want to extend to others. But there's also the principle of responsibility and accountability."
Delegate Katherine Benally staunchly defended Naize by saying that those who support his removal had a personal vendetta. While the legislation sought to remove Naize from the leadership post, it did not prevent him from remaining on the Tribal Council.