Delegate's wife found in contempt of court

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay, right, walks with his attorney, Jeffery Rasmussen, after Begay’s pre-trial hearing in Window Rock District Court in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A judge on Monday found the wife of Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay to be in contempt of court after she repeatedly refused to answer questions about the discretionary fund case.

Mitzie Begay was taken to jail in Window Rock, Ariz., on Monday evening, hours after her husband's pre-trial conference.

Mel R. Begay, who represents Bahastl’ah, Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters, faces criminal charges for allegedly misusing the fund, which was designed to help tribal members who faced financial hardships or needed emergency assistance.

The Navajo Nation, through its special prosecutor, alleged Begay used more than $30,000 from the fund to benefit his relatives.

Throughout the case, the special prosecutor has made numerous attempts to interview Mitzie Begay and has had court orders issued to interview her. But she has refused to be interviewed and has invoked spousal privilege, which prevents married couples from being forced to testify against one another in certain cases.

Attorney Marc Lowry, who represents the special prosecutor, told Window Rock District Court Judge Carol Perry that Mitzie Begay would be asked questions that would not violate spousal privilege.

“All the Navajo Nation would like is for Mrs. Begay to follow the clear orders issued by this court,” Lowry said.

Martha King, Mitzie Begay’s attorney, repeatedly stated on Monday that her client would not answer questions because she is protected under spousal privilege.

In court documents, Mitzie Begay also cited spousal privilege as her reason for not answering questions in a pretrial interview on Dec. 21 and most recently during a deposition on Feb. 16.

The special prosecutor filed a motion to hold Mitzie Begay in civil contempt after the Feb. 16 hearing.

After issuing her verbal decision, Perry explained Mitzie Begay would be escorted to jail unless the parties could come to an agreement while the written order was finalized.

Mitzie Begay waited with her attorney for more than an hour for the written order. During that time, the two parties did not approach one another.

After a court clerk returned to the courtroom and distributed copies of the decision, Mitzie Begay was taken into custody.

Mel R. Begay is facing one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of making or permitting false tribal vouchers.

In a separate hearing on Monday, Begay's attorney, Jeffery Rasmussen, repeatedly asked Perry to delay or shorten the upcoming jury trial.

A two-week trial is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Monday in Window Rock District Court.

Rasmussen explained the request was being made because he has a trial in federal court in Utah that will overlap with a portion of Begay's trial.

Perry asked Rasmussen several questions, including why the date conflict was being brought up now when Begay's trial date was determined several months ago.

She also asked whether attorney Jennifer Baker, who is listed as co-counsel on court documents, could handle Begay's trial in Rasmussen’s absence.

Rasmussen explained he is the lead attorney for the case and that Baker has never tried a civil or criminal case in court.

In response, Perry said that the court documents Rasmussen filed did not indicate that Baker had not previously tried a case.

Perry did not rule on the request before court adjourned.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.