Jonathan Nez faced challenge from former candidate

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A chief hearing officer for the Navajo Nation Office of Hearings and Appeals determined today that Jonathan Nez remains an eligible candidate for the tribal presidency.

Former presidential candidate Vincent H. Yazzie filed a grievance in the OHA on Sept. 7, claiming Nez, who currently serves as vice president, was not qualified to run for the presidency because he violated the tribe's election code by not disclosing on his candidate application that he had a misdemeanor conviction for a driving while under the influence of alcohol charge from June 2002.

Chief Hearing Officer Richie Nez, who is unrelated to the vice president, ruled the grievance filed by Yazzie was insufficient, and Jonathan Nez is "legally qualified for the office."

"I truly believe that the Office of Hearings and Appeals did their job today. They ruled pursuant to the law, pursuant to what’s in the Navajo Nation Code," Jonathan Nez said in an interview after the hearing.

The ruling upholds tribal law that convictions more than five years old do not affect qualification, he said.

"We all make mistakes, and we learn from those mistakes and we utilize it as a teaching tool," Nez said.

Bernadine Martin, Yazzie's attorney, said after the hearing the possibility of an appeal to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court will be up to her client.

"We believe that the DUI affects Mr. Nez's qualification to be president of the Navajo Nation and holding the highest office on the reservation," Martin said.

She added while preparing for the case, she found it troubling that the election code is unclear when it comes to such matters.

More: Voters back Nez, Shirley in Navajo Nation presidential race

"If the code was written tighter and stronger and more clear, we'd have less of this and less effect on the election process," Martin said.

During the hearing, Jonathan Nez sat next to his attorney, David Jordan. Sitting nearby were his wife, Phefelia Herbert-Nez, and campaign manager, Clara Pratte.

Yazzie and Martin sat across the table, facing Nez and Jordan.

The majority of the hearing was spent on a motion filed by Jordan to have OHA revise its Sept. 11 ruling that found Yazzie's grievance as sufficient and to dismiss the case.

Jordan argued the qualifications for the president and vice president are clearly stated in the election code. In terms of felonies and misdemeanors, both must have occurred within the last five years, he said.

Records from Flagstaff Municipal Court show the Nez case was closed in June 2005, he added.

More: Nez names longtime business owner as vice president

"Therefore, we believe that the grievance is insufficient," Jordan said.

Martin argued that another section of the election code mandates that a candidate report any conviction, including misdemeanors, that affect the qualification for office.

"Our argument is that this should have been reported. That this should have been on his candidacy application, and the candidacy application includes a line for felonies and misdemeanors," Martin said.

Later, she referred to a February 2014 resolution by the Navajo Nation Council that amended the qualifications for candidates.

In Richie Nez's ruling, he said the tribal council resolution did clarify qualifications for candidates, and while Martin was correct in stating that information, the change centered on candidates seeking school board positions.

He added the election code's current language states a candidate for president or vice president must not have been convicted of a felony within the last five years.

Another section states such candidates must not have been convicted of certain misdemeanors within the last five years.

He said when he reads the 2014 council resolution and the current qualifications in the election code, "there is no conflict."

Records from Flagstaff Municipal Court show Nez was charged with extreme DUI and DUI on June 27, 2002.

The extreme DUI charge was later dismissed, and he pleaded guilty to DUI on Aug. 2, 2002, and was ordered to pay a $481 fine. He also was sentenced to jail and was ordered to undergo alcohol treatment.

Nez said he talks publicly about his experience with alcohol and how he overcame substance abuse to change his life.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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