Testimony centers on discretionary fund

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay, right, and his attorney, Jeffery Rasmussen, leave Window Rock District Court in Window Rock, Ariz., on earlier this year after the first day of testimony in Begay’s trial.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – Jurors in the trial of Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay heard testimony Wednesday that provided some insight into the financial assistance program once operated by the tribal council.

Begay, who has been serving on the council since January 2003, is accused of misusing the discretionary fund to provide funding to his six children. The discretionary fund was designed to help tribal members who faced financial hardships or needed emergency assistance.

Alfreda Lee, a senior auditor with the tribe’s Office of the Auditor General, told the jury the office was asked by former Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan to review the financial assistance program in 2009. Morgan's request was prompted by a newspaper story that reported that several individuals with close ties to the speaker’s office received funding under the program.

Initially, the audit was to review assistance approved by delegates in 2006 and 2007. But Morgan and his chief of staff later expanded the review to cover the years from 2006 to 2009, Lee said.

Among the areas the auditors reviewed were the program’s application process and the financial oversight, she said.

Lee said some delegates attached additional documentation to request forms, which showed the need for financial assistance. The request form changed throughout the years but a delegate would always sign the form in order to authorize payment, she said.

During the cross-examination, Begay’s attorney, Jeffery Rasmussen, asked why the Auditor General’s Office did not audit the program until after Morgan made the request. Rasmussen also asked how much financial assistance the Auditor General's Office reported as misappropriated.

Lee said she could not answer because the auditors never finished the review.

“If you can’t complete the audit, then you can’t make those types of statements,” Lee said.

Jurors also heard testimony from Laura Calvin, who worked as the legislative financial adviser for the speaker’s office from 1995 until she retired in 2009.

Calvin said her office was responsible for issuing the discretionary fund and handled claims filed by delegates for attending meetings, as well as processing travel payments for lawmakers. She recalled the discretionary fund had been in existence since 1995, and the money allocated to the fund by the council increased over the years.

Attorney Marc Lowry, who represents the special prosecutor, said in his opening statement that, at one point, each of the council's 88 delegates received $75,000 to issue under the discretionary fund.

As part of Calvin's duties, she said she managed two employees, but in 2006, she said five staff members were added due to the “overwhelming” demands of processing discretionary fund requests.

Calvin did not finish testifying before the court recessed Wednesday. The special prosecutor will continue questioning Calvin starting at 9 a.m. today.

In Lowry's opening statement, he said the evidence will show how Begay used the discretionary fund to issue assistance to his children and that his actions violated tribal laws. He explained the council developed the financial assistance program because delegates recognized the poverty on the Navajo Nation and wanted to design a program to help low-income individuals.

The program was designed to help individuals such as those who needed help in purchasing coal or firewood, and families who needed assistance in paying funeral expenses, Lowry said.

But in Begay's case, he approved at least 60 requests from his children, including those submitted by fax from the Native Crafters Supply Co., a business operated by his wife, Mitzie Begay, in Gallup, Lowry said.

Rasmussen, who is representing Begay, said in his opening statement that his client's signature was not the only one to appear on forms that authorized payments from the discretionary fund.

As Rasmussen pointed to a large display showing a request form from fiscal year 2009, he told jurors the form also has signature lines for personnel from the speaker's office and for the speaker. But those individuals are not on trial, he said.

"Mr. Begay is a lot easier to go after, and that's what they are going after today. He did not commit a crime," Rasmussen said.

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