The Navajo Nation Special Prosecutors issued a PRESS RELEASE on March 11, 2014, that “a number of current and former council delegates now admit that the Financial Assistance program was misused to enrich families of council delegates and legislative staff. As a result, the criminal and ethics complaints against current and former council delegates are finally moving towards resolution.”
The Financial Assistance Program is the Navajo Nation Council’s official title for the discretionary fund or slush fund.
The Special Prosecutors, who are the Tempe, Ariz., law firm of Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom & Schoenburg, reported that they have filed criminal charges against 15 current and former Council delegates and against one former legislative office employee. They have also filed ethics complaints against 12 former and current Council delegates.
They noted that two criminal defendants, former Delegates Raymond Joe and Harry Williams, entered guilty pleas and that the remaining 13 criminal cases are now moving towards trials in tribal court.
The Special Prosecutors stated that the Window Rock District Court held two pretrial hearings and two arraignments this week.
Five of the 12 ethics complaints, which are pending with the Navajo Nation Office of Hearings and Appeals, were settled and the rest are moving towards hearings before OHA, they added.
“A number of other current and former Council delegates have also agreed to cooperate and testify in the upcoming trials,” the Special Prosecutors noted. “The misuse of the financial assistance program was very unfortunate for the Navajo Nation because Council delegates abused the scarce resources of the Navajo Nation to benefit their own families.”
According to the 12 criminal complaints filed against Speaker Johnny Naize by the Special Prosecutors, Naize enriched himself and family members with $36,950 from the slush fund, which was specifically created to help Navajo people who had “no alternative monetary resources” to pay their expenses.
Initially Naize had 11 criminal charges filed against him by the Special Prosecutors on Dec. 3, 2014. But on Feb. 20, 2014, the Special Prosecutors filed another bribery charge against Naize that involved former Council Delegate Harry Willeto, who represented Nageezi, Ojo Encino, and Counselor chapters.
I found out about the additional charge of bribery on March 11, 2014, during the arraignment of Nazie in the Navajo Nation Window Rock, Ariz., District Court.
Naize pleaded not guilty to all 12 of his criminal charges – one count of conspiracy and 11 counts of bribery – involving the alleged misuse of the discretionary fund.
Former Speaker Lawrence Morgan was also arraigned on March 11, 2014, before Judge Carol Perry, and Morgan also plead not guilty to all seven of his criminal complaints, which involved one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and seven counts of bribery. It’s alleged that Morgan and his family benefited from about $17,550 in slush funds.
Morgan is among the eight former Council delegates and one current delegate that Naize is alleged to have bribed with slush funds to receive slush funds. The eight former delegates are Morgan, Willeto, George Arthur, Elmer Milford, Orlinda Smith-Hodge, Andy Ayze, Leonard Teller, and Raymond Joe. Delegate David Tom is the only delegate presently serving on the Council. Tom is a member of the Council’s Resources and Development Committee.
According to the criminal complaints against Naize and Morgan, it was clear from the Council’s priority list who the Navajo people were that were in the most need of assistance from the discretionary fund. The top priority was elders on a fixed income or unemployed who needed to pay for housing, fuel, transportation, medical expenses and food.
The next priority was students enrolled in an academic program in high school, college, vocational school, or short-term educational programs for tuition, clothing, books, lodging, transportation and educational enrichment.
And after the students, it was Navajo people in need of burial or other emergency assistance not addressed in elderly or education assistance and then senior citizen, chapters, youth activities, veterans and traditional ceremonies.
Navajo law was also very clear about prohibiting Council delegates from authorizing financial assistance for “a family member (or) a business associate in accordance with the Ethics in Government law and the supplicant (sic) code of conduct.”
But according to criminal complaints involving conspiracy to commit bribery in official and political matters, Naize and nine Council delegates and Morgan and four delegates created a scheme to get around the ethics law that involved two delegates agreeing to authorize discretionary fund for each other’s children, wives and family members.
The Special Prosecutors called the scheme a simple “You scratch my back and I will scratch your back” plan that was basically “unlawful.”
The four delegates that Morgan allegedly schemed with to illegally benefit from the financial assistance fund are Naize, Hoskie Kee, Ernest D. Yazzie, and Young Jeff Tom.
According to the complaints against Naize and Morgan, the alleged misuse of the discretionary fund occurred between 1991 and 2011, which was during their terms as delegates on the Council.
The Special Prosecutors explained in their March 11, 2014, press release that the criminal complaints and ethics charges have been lengthy to develop and have been expensive to the Navajo Nation to prosecute but that’s because delegates initially refused to voluntarily provide information to the Special Prosecutors about the slush fund.
“That has finally changed,” the Special Prosecutors stated. “More and more Council delegates are now admitting that the financial assistance fund was misused.”
They stated that Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie recently admitted that “the financial assistance program became a ‘free for all’ where funds were often misused…Because of the lack of financial controls, direct and indirect payments of financial assistance to household members became more and more common. Many of these payments were for $1,000 or more.”
Yazzie, who serves as the Council’s Law and Order Committee chairperson and served as Speaker pro temp during the Council’s debate and vote over legislation for the Council to remove Naize on Jan. 28, 2014, added that the misuse of the discretionary fund by delegates “violated the sacred trust placed in members of the Navajo Nation Council and violated the fundamental law of the nation.”
On Jan. 28, 2014, Yazzie distributed a letter from the Special Prosecutors to the Council that started that “all claims or potential claims within the jurisdiction of the special prosecutors regarding, you, Edmund E. Yazzie, have been fully and satisfactorily resolved.” The letter was dated Jan. 28 2014.
According to the Special Prosecutors’ March 11, 2014, press release, Delegate Nelson BeGaye, who is a member of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, stated, “The way the financial assistance program was run was wrong and was the direct result of a lack of financial controls within the Legislative Branch.”
The Special Prosecutors noted that in the guilty pleas by former Delegates Raymond Joe and Harry Williams to conspiracy to commit bribery that both Joe and Williams “gave detailed explanations about the payments of financial assistance to other Council delegates in exchange for payments to their family members.”