Former Navajo Nation Council speaker pleads guilty to conspiracy charge
WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — The former top official of the Navajo Nation Council pleaded guilty to conspiracy on Tuesday in Window Rock District Court.
Standing before District Court Judge Geraldine Benally, the tribal council's former speaker, Johnny Naize, entered a guilty plea for conspiracy to commit bribery under a plea agreement with the tribe.
Naize, who announced his resignation in a letter on Monday, was on paid administrative leave as speaker but continued serving as a delegate representing the Arizona chapters of Blue Gap-Tachee, Cottonwood-Tselani, Low Mountain, Many Farms and Nazlini.
The council placed Naize on leave in April after he was charged with bribery and conspiracy for allegedly misusing the discretionary fund. The discretionary fund was established for delegates to provide financial help to tribal members dealing with emergencies or financial hardships.
On Tuesday morning, Naize arrived to the courtroom in Window Rock, Ariz., with his wife, Barbara O'Keefe, and sat to the left of his attorney, Troy Eid, during the 45-minute plea hearing.
As a procedure under the Navajo Rules of Criminal Procedure, Benally read the details of the plea agreement Naize reached with the Navajo Nation through the tribe's special prosecutor and then waited for Naize's response.
Naize repeatedly stated, "Yes, your honor," to each statement as Benally read in the agreement.
Naize admitted that from 2006 to 2009, he entered into agreements with current delegate David L. Tom and former delegates George Arthur, Andy Ayze, Raymond Joe, Elmer Milford, Lawrence T. Morgan, Orlanda Smith Hodge and Leonard Teller to provide $36,900 in financial assistance to members of their families.
In exchange, each delegate distributed similar amounts in financial assistance to members of Naize's family.
Naize has agreed to cooperate with the special prosecutor and possibly provide testimony in upcoming trials related to alleged discretionary fund misuse.
Under the sentencing agreement, after the related trials are concluded, the court will schedule a sentencing hearing for Naize.
Naize faces the possibility of at least 90 days in jail or community service if the special prosecutor determines he did not adequately assist in the prosecution of the remaining cases.
The tribe may also request that Naize pay restitution. The amount would be based on Naize's evidence and testimony and his ability to pay.
According to the plea agreement, any money reimbursed by O'Keefe to the tribe's Ethics and Rules Office as repayment for the misuse of discretionary funding will not affect the amount of restitution Naize may have to pay. The plea agreement does not state how much O'Keefe repaid to the office.
Also, the tribe's retirement office will hold Naize's retirement benefits until the two parties reach an agreement on restitution and the court issues an order permitting the release of those funds, according to court documents.
If Naize meets the terms of the plea agreement, the 11 counts of bribery will be dismissed with prejudice after the final sentencing.
During the plea hearing, Naize was given time to address the court.
"I'm responsible for any wrongdoing that has happened," he said, adding he decided not to run for reelection and plans to return to "private life."
He also added: "I'd like to close this chapter in my life and start a new one."
In remarks to the court, attorney Mark Donatelli, who represented the special prosecutor, said Naize has already provided substantial help and documentation to help the prosection.
"We fully appreciate the acceptance of responsibility," Donatelli said, adding he hopes the remaining defendants take into account Naize's actions and reach similar agreements.