Delegate found guilty of misusing funds

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay, left, and his attorney, Jeffrey Rasmussen, leave the Window Rock District Court in March after a jury found Begay guilty for misusing a tribal financial assistance program.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – After three hours of deliberation, a jury found Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay guilty Wednesday evening of 10 counts of misusing the tribe's former financial assistance program to benefit his six children.

The six-member jury reached a verdict for each count after listening to a week of testimony in Window Rock District Court.

Begay, who represents the Bahastl'ah, Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters, listened as District Court Judge Carol Perry read each verdict into the record.

He remains free under a condition of release. A sentencing hearing is set for 11 a.m. on May 17 in Window Rock District Court.

Begay was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of making or permitting false tribal vouchers for allegedly misusing more than $30,000 from the financial assistance program. The charges were filed by the Navajo Nation special prosecutor in 2014 and in 2015.

The program, which is also known as the discretionary fund, was designed by the council to help tribal members who face financial hardship or need emergency assistance.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday morning after calling 14 witnesses and submitting approximately 70 exhibits during the trial.

The defense did not call any witnesses, and Begay did not testify on his own behalf.

Attorney Marc Lowry, who is representing the special prosecutor, said in closing arguments the case against Begay is about the betrayal of trust placed in him by the Navajo people. He betrayed the people when he supplied his family with money designated to help low-income individuals, the elderly and those with medical conditions, Lowry said.

Lowry recapped portions of testimony given throughout the trial, including statements by Isabelle Yazzie, an accounting manager with the tribe’s Office of the Controller. In Yazzie’s testimony on Tuesday, she answered questions about Begay's annual income, including statements that he earned $48,000 in 2006 and $63,000 in 2010.

Lowry reminded jurors they also heard testimony from one of Begay’s daughters, who talked about the income her mother, Mitzie Begay, received from the business she operated in Gallup. Those examples showed Begay and his family were not qualified to receive money under the program, Lowry said.

Among the exhibits submitted by the prosecution were 59 financial assistance forms authorized by Begay and 45 letters written by his children that requested assistance.

“Not a single one says, ‘Hi, Dad. How are you doing?’ Not a single one acknowledged the father-child relationship,” Lowry said.

He reminded jurors that witnesses provided insight into how the financial assistance program operated, the regulation that eventually developed and how requests were processed.

Jeffrey Rasmussen, Begay's attorney, said the prosecution described the program as helping the “poorest of the poor” but claimed prosecutors did not provide hard evidence about the program or its design, including who is eligible and who is not.

“As far as specifics, they didn’t offer it,” Rasmussen said.

He called into questioning the testimony of Laura Calvin, a former legislative financial adviser, and Victoria Cecil, a former accounts maintenance specialist, who both worked in the Speaker’s Office. Rasmussen said the women provided information about the program as part of plea agreements they reached with the prosecution for charges involving the discretionary fund.

As for Cecil’s statements, he said during her cross-examination she could not repeat the same answers that she gave prosecutors when asked about financial documents she said showed Begay’s signature.

He said prosecutors failed to ask witnesses whether they knew the financial assistance requests were submitted by Begay's children or if they even questioned the requests.

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