Testimony continues in council delegate's trial

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay, left, meets with his attorney, Jeffrey Rasmussen, after court recessed on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Witnesses for the Navajo Nation Special Prosecutor continued to take the stand on Tuesday in the trial for tribal council Delegate Mel R. Begay.

Begay faces criminal charges for allegedly misusing more than $30,000 from the tribe's former financial assistance program, which was designed to help tribal members who faced financial hardship or needed emergency assistance.

Victoria Cecil, a former accounts maintenance specialist with the Speaker’s Office, testified Tuesday in Window Rock District Court. Cecil said she was hired in April 2007 and worked in the office for six and a half years.

In her testimony, she described her work handling requests made to the financial assistance program, which included recording information from request forms.

There were days when she processed more than 200 requests, Cecil said, but the count varied. The number of requests increased when delegates had their discretionary fund accounts replenished, which could happen every six months, she said.

The bulk of Cecil’s testimony centered on 57 financial assistance request forms that were allegedly submitted by Begay. The eight jurors reviewed each request form as it was displayed on a flat-screen television.

Attorney Marc Lowry, who represents the special prosecutor, repeatedly asked Cecil to identify the handwriting and signatures on the forms. Cecil testified that the signatures on 55 of the request forms belonged to Begay. She said two of the forms were submitted before she began working at the office, and she could not confirm that they were submitted by Begay.

Jeffrey Rasmussen, Begay's attorney, objected to Cecil identifying handwriting and signatures, stating she is not certified in handwriting analysis.

District Court Judge Carol Perry allowed Lowry to proceed, explaining that while tribal court rules are “silent” on using the testimony of handwriting experts, the court was “satisfied” with Cecil’s ability to testify on the issue because her daily work involved processing the forms.

During cross-examination, Rasmussen asked Cecil about the type of training she received for analyzing handwriting.

Cecil admitted she had no training, and Rasmussen continued to question her ability to identify Begay’s handwriting and signature.

He also had Cecil reexamine a number of exhibits and called her attention to the variation in lettering and styling on forms she stated were written by Begay.

Cecil maintained her ability to identify the delegate's writing, saying she had processed a number of requests filed by Begay.

The jury also heard testimony on Tuesday from Tony Perry, department manager for projects development in the tribe’s Division of Economic Development.

He provided information from the data his office complied in 2007 about the Navajo population. During that year, the unemployment rate was more than 50 percent for Navajo Nation residents, Perry said.

He said his office also reported 36 percent of Navajos lived below the poverty level in 2007, and the per capita income was $7,122 that year.

The criminal complaint filed last year against Begay accused the delegate of providing $33,750 from the tribe's financial assistance program to his children between 2006 and 2010.

In Lowry's opening statement last week, he said the tribal council’s financial assistance program was developed to help low-income individuals with expenses such as heating and burials.

The special prosecutor will continue questioning witnesses at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

On Monday, Perry ordered the immediate release of Delegate Begay’s wife, Mitzie Begay, from Window Rock jail.

Perry issued the order after a joint witness list for Delegate Begay's trial did not include Mitzie Begay’s name, and the court determined she was “no longer an anticipated witness” in her husband’s case.

Mitzie Begay had been in jail since March 7, after Perry found her to be in contempt of court after she refused to answer questions about the financial assistance program, citing spousal privilege.

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