Tribe's discretionary fund cases draw to close

Felicia Fonseca
The Associated Press
Navajo lawmakers look over criminal complaints filed against them in the lobby of the Window Rock, Ariz., district court on Oct. 21, 2010. More than three-fourths of the lawmakers have been charged in an investigation into the use of slush funds. A long-running saga stemming from allegations that Navajo tribal officials schemed to give money to family members is drawing to a close.

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. — A long-running saga over tribal officials on the Navajo Nation scheming to give money to each other's family members is drawing to a close.

Two legal cases remain after nearly 80 onetime lawmakers originally were charged with illegally drawing money from a slush fund in what became common practice on the reservation. Tribal officials were accused of concocting all sorts of ways to get the money meant for Navajos facing extreme financial hardship. The requests included college tuition for a toddler, medical and travel expenses that turned out to be fake, vehicle repairs for a 9-year-old kid and home renovations for a teenager. Money even went to a fictitious child.

No one will be sentenced to any more than one year in jail — the maximum allowed under tribal law. The tribe could request restitution.

Here is an overview of the investigation:

The discretionary fund

The fund was intended for elderly Navajos on fixed incomes, the unemployed, students enrolled in academic programs, burial expenses and other limited circumstances. The investigation found that nepotism and bribery played a huge role in lawmakers doling out the money. The lawmakers had access to more than $30 million during fiscal years 2005 to 2009.

The tribe's Supreme Court put a halt to the discretionary fund in 2011. Navajo Nation Council spokesman Jared Touchin says no one has talked about reviving the spending source.

The prosecution

The Tribal Council inadvertently voted to investigate itself when it called for a special prosecutor to look into allegations against a tribal president. That investigation was expanded to include the lawmakers' use of discretionary funds.

In October 2010, 77 lawmakers were charged with crimes including fraud, abuse of office and theft weeks before an election. The number of cases overwhelmed the tribal court, which estimated it would take a decade to resolve them and said every defendant who wanted a jury trial had to pay for it.

Then, in July 2011, nearly all the criminal complaints were dismissed and replaced with a civil lawsuit accusing a broader group of tribal officials of defrauding the tribal government. Those defendants eventually were dropped from the suit.

New prosecutors brought criminal charges against 18 people, including tribal lawmakers and two employees. Ethics cases were lodged against a dozen people.

People gather outside the Navajo Nation Council chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., on Oct. 21, 2010. More than three-fourths of the 88-member Navajo Nation Council has been charged in an investigation into the use of discretionary funds. A long-running saga stemming from allegations that Navajo tribal officials schemed to give money to family members is drawing to a close.

The fallout

The revelation that lawmakers were enriching their families eroded the public's trust in its government. The Tribal Council, angry over being the focus of the investigation, attempted to fire the tribe's attorney general.

Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and his running mate, Rex Lee Jim, agreed just ahead of their inauguration to pay back the money they were accused of taking. Neither admitted wrongdoing. FormerNavajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize and delegate David Tom resigned while in office after pleading guilty and no contest, respectively, in their criminal cases.

Where things stand

All but two of the defendants in the criminal cases, Mel Begay and Hoskie Kee, have signed plea agreements with prosecutors. The 12 ethics cases have been resolved.

Begay, a current lawmaker, is scheduled to go on trial March 14. He is charged with 16 counts, including conspiracy to commit fraud, conflict of interest and submitting a false voucher. The complaints allege that Begay illegally authorized payments to his children, including for a pre-paid band trip and for $800 in costs for summer school tuition that didn't exist.

A judge recently rejected a request from Begay to dismiss his case. Begay has said the charges are unwarranted and believes he'll be cleared.

Prosecutor Eric Dahlstrom said the goal of all the cases is to send a message to "prevent other people from stealing."