Charges filed in probe of Navajo slush funds

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) October 2010

A special prosecutor has filed criminal complaints in an investigation of the Navajo Nation Council’s discretionary funds.

The tribe’s Department of Justice said last week that criminal complaints allege conspiracy, fraud, theft, forgery and abuse of office related to management of the funds.

Tribal justice officials didn’t immediately say how many complaints had been issued. Navajo lawmakers were told to call the prosecutor’s office to determine if they are the subject of a criminal complaint.

“This is probably one list you really don’t want to be on,” said council Delegate LoRenzo Bates.

Tribal Council spokesman Alastair Bitsoi said the position of lawmakers has been that the funds are available to give out to those in need and as they see fit. He said the 88-member council bases its decisions on respect and upholding the public interest.

“They’re innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “They still have to go through the process, and if this is the process, we’ll continue.”

The complaints were announced during the Tribal Council’s weeklong fall session in Window Rock and just ahead of the Nov. 2 election in which nearly three dozen lawmakers are on the ballot.

The council receives millions of dollars a year though supplemental budget appropriations to dole out to elderly Navajos on fixed income, college students, organizations in need or Navajos looking for emergency funding.

Any Navajo can seek financial assistance from a single lawmaker every six months, according to the policy, which has been amended over the years to exclude a limit on how much an individual could receive.

Navajo Attorney General Louis Denetsosie has said allegations of improper payments from lawmakers to family members of legislative branch employees had raised serious concerns about whether a few elected officials have betrayed the public’s trust. Some of the payments were detailed in a series of stories by the Navajo Times newspaper.

Justice officials did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press on last week. Court officials said the complaints were not ready for dissemination.

Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie said he doesn’t believe he’ll be among those charged but was concerned about the way the council was made aware of the complaints.

Some lawmakers found out through a news release in their office mail box, others found out through the radio or word of mouth and some were unaware at first.

“If there’s a charge filed, by all means, let the defendant know instead of you having to call on your own,” Yazzie said.

Dominic Beyal, director of the tribe’s Office of Management and Budget, said discretionary funding to the council, and president’s and vice president’s office has become a recurring cost that comes from nonrecurring sources.

He said his office has suggested that money allocated for discretionary use go to social service workers, but the council hasn’t heeded that suggestion.

“It could be said that discretionary financial assistance does not fit their purpose or the scope of work really for the council or the legislative branch,” Beyal said. “There are other programs that do that.”

Alan Balaran was hired as the special prosecutor earlier this year to look into the discretionary funds of the Tribal Council and the tribe’s relationship with two businesses that had operated on the reservation.

His duties later were expanded to include a tribal ranch program, and discretionary funds given to the tribal president and vice president’s office.