Ex-council delegate sentenced to 3 years in jail

Former Navajo lawmaker Mel R. Begaye was sentenced to three years in jail and one year of probation, as well as a $4,500 fine and $33,400 in restitution payments

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.
  • Mel R. Begay received 3 years in jail and a $4,500 fine for making or permitting false tribal vouchers.
  • Begay was also sentenced to a year of probation and 1,000 hours of community service for conspiracy.
  • A jury in March found the former lawmaker guilty of 10 counts related to the discretionary fund case.
  • Begay's attorney said his client plans to file an appeal with the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay has been sentenced to three years in jail for misusing a financial assistance program that was designed to help Navajo people with financial hardship.

Window Rock District Court Judge Carol Perry sentenced Begay today to three years in jail and a fine of $4,500 after he was found guilty earlier this year of making or permitting false tribal vouchers.

A six-member jury found Begay guilty of 10 counts — one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of making or permitting false tribal vouchers  — on March 23.

Begay was also sentenced to immediately pay $33,400 in restitution.

The judge further handed down a sentence of one year of probation and 1,000 hours of community service, both starting on May 17, 2019, for the conspiracy conviction.

Begay, who served 13 years on the council before being removed by the Navajo Election Administration on April 15, addressed the court prior to sentencing.

The former lawmaker said he had great expectations for his jury trial because he thought it would allow him to address the accusations. But, he said, that did not happen because his defense was not given the opportunity.

He added the tribe's special prosecutor damaged his public image and reputation.

"This situation has altered my life and continues to turn it upside down. … I don’t know how and why it has to go to this extreme, to humiliate me. There’s no satisfaction on his account," he said.

Begay added his faith has guided him to "forgive" the special prosecutor for the actions.

"I still have hope in this court. I ask for leniency. … Respectfully, I ask for forgiveness as well," he said.

The former delegate’s wife, Mitzie Begay, was present in the courtroom for the sentencing hearing and when her husband spoke.

Judge Perry explained the court is required to take into consideration any prior records, family circumstances, employment status and other situations before imposing a sentence. She said she reviewed the pre-sentence investigation report prepared by the district court probation officer and the sentencing memorandum prepared by the special prosecutor.

After the sentence was read, Jeffery Rasmussen, Begay’s attorney, asked the court to delay taking his client into custody.

Rasmussen said Begay plans to file an appeal to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, and that process should take place before his incarceration. He said Begay also has personal matters to address, including attending a daughter’s graduation this weekend.

"It is not appropriate for the court to impose jail sentence immediately," he said.

However, the judge did not delay the sentence, and Begay was taken into custody at the Window Rock jail after the court adjourned.

Marc Lowry, who is representing the special prosecutor, said in a statement issued this evening that the tribe is pleased with the ruling.

"The entire Navajo Nation can rest assured that justice has been served in this case and that Mr. Begay has been held accountable for his misuse of the Navajo Nation funds," Lowry said.

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.

Sentencing came after Perry listened to more than an hour of statements from both attorneys.

Rasmussen argued the jury did not fairly judge his client because the special prosecutor presented a case based on opinion, rather than factual evidence.

He added the financial assistance program was "poorly designed" and had no accountability, and his client should not be placed in jail as a result of the its structure.

Lowry said the Navajo people elect leaders who should perform with "the best interest of the people." He also called government corruption a "serious offense" that should be treated with the "uttermost respect" by the court.

The court also heard a sentence recommendation from Crystal Kasuse, a district court probation officer with the tribe's probation services.

Before reading the recommendations for sentencing, Kasuse said part of her responsibility in preparing the pre-sentence report included investigating the charges and interviewing Begay.

Kasuse said the recommendation for the conspiracy charge was one year in jail and $33,750 in restitution.

For the nine counts of making or permitting false tribal vouchers, Kasuse said the recommendation was serving another year in jail and paying a $900 fine.

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