Tribe's high court reverses election decision

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has reversed a lower court's decision about a special election to fill a vacant seat on the tribal council.

The high court issued its Dec. 16 written decision for an appeal filed by Theresa A. Becenti-Aguilar, who is challenging the eligibility of Steven Begay to represent five chapters.

Becenti-Aguilar and Begay were among 13 candidates who were looking to represent Bahastl’ah, Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters after the council seat was declared vacant.

The vacancy occurred after former delegate Mel R. Begay was found guilty in March for misusing a financial assistance program designed to help tribal members with financial emergencies.

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In a special election in June, Begay received 731 of the 2,534 total ballots cast from the five chapters. Becenti-Aguilar finished second with 564 votes.

On July 5, Becenti-Aguilar filed a grievance with the Office of Hearings and Appeals claiming Begay was not qualified to run for office because he was an employee with Indian Health Service and his action violated tribal law, which prohibits federal and state employees from running for tribal office.

The high court was asked to weigh in on the issue after Becenti-Aguilar filed an appeal to the order OHA issued in August, which determined Begay was eligible and should be allowed to take the oath of office.

Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments on Dec. 6 in Window Rock, Ariz. In the court decision, the justices wrote there was no dispute that Begay was not qualified to run when he filed a candidacy application in April and disclosed his federal employment.

Although Begay disclosed his employment with the federal government, his application was initially denied by the Navajo Election Administration.

He challenged the election administration decision with the OHA, which ruled he was eligible and allowed to run because a stipulation was made between him and the election administration. That stipulation stated if Begay was elected, he would resign from IHS before taking the oath of office.

In the decision, the justices took issue with OHA's decision to accept the stipulation because it "essentially circumvented" election law, and it was not known to the other candidate so they could initiate grievance procedures prior to the election.

In addition to reversing OHA's decision, the justices sent the matter back to OHA for a final determination.

Donna Williams, left, and Dianna Yazzie-Nez look over a sample ballot on June 28 at the Coyote Canyon chapter house. In the special election, voters determined who would represent Bahastl’ah, Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters on the Navajo Nation Council.

David Jordan, Becenti-Aguilar's attorney said today he was not surprised by the decision because of the questions the justices asked during the Dec. 6 hearing.

"We're certainly very happy the Supreme Court ruled in her favor,” Jordan said.

Attorney Justin Jones, who represented Begay, said his client was disappointed with the ruling.

Jones also took issue with the high court's choice not to address whether the law addressing qualification is unreasonable since tribal employees are allowed to run for office and have the right to decide whether to resign if they win.

Both attorneys said they are not sure what action OHA may take on the matter.

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