List of Navajo lawmakers facing charges grows

By Felicia Fonseca
Window Rock, Arizona (AP) November 2010

More than three-fourths of the 88-member Navajo Nation Council has been charged in an investigation into the use of discretionary funds.

Not all who face charges have been served with criminal complaints.

A tribal court released complaints Oct. 29th for four of the people who have appeared before a judge. They are alleged to have unlawfully taken a combined $53,350 from the tribal government to benefit themselves and their families.

Among them is tribal Vice President Ben Shelly, a former lawmaker who has pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and theft. He faces Lynda Lovejoy in the race to become the next tribal president, and the allegations could hurt his chances in the election.
His running mate, Council Delegate Rex Lee, also is charged in the probe. Shelly campaign spokesman Deswood Tome says Shelly and his family are gathering all documents related to the payments and can show “they had legitimate reasons of hardship for why that money was used.” Two Navajo police officers arrived at the legislative branch offices last week with stacks of complaints to serve upon delegates, who were in Window Rock for their fall session. Court officials say complaints still are being processed, and the total number of those charged in the investigation isn’t yet known but includes some regular Navajo citizens. Council Delegate Ernest Yazzie said a day earlier that he believed the timing of the complaints was political, having come just days before Navajo voters decide on the next set of elected officials. He took issue with a special prosecutor being hired from outside the Navajo Nation, though it was the council that had called for an investigation into the tribal president’s relationship with two companies that had operated on the reservation. The tribe’s attorney general surprised the lawmakers when he also asked that a special prosecutor probe the council’s discretionary funds. “This is a sovereign nation here but they’re just making fun of their own people, bringing in an outside prosecutor,” said Yazzie, who is up for re-election to a smaller 24-member Tribal Council. “They don’t want the old delegates back in this 24.” Voters chose to cut the number of tribal lawmakers in a special December election, an effort spearheaded by tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. as a way to reform the government. Tribal justice officials announced the complaints this week that stemmed from a monthslong investigation by special prosecutor, Alan Balaran, who looked into the council’s discretionary spending from 2005 to 2009. The council gives itself–and the Office of the President and Vice President–millions of dollars a year in slush funds that are meant for Navajos facing hardships who have nowhere else to turn. Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan said the council will cooperate in the investigation that already has compromised Navajos’ confidence in their government. Some of the lawmakers are scheduled to be arraigned next week, while other arraignments stretch into the new year. Pretrial hearings are expected to begin in January. Balaran also is investigating a tribal ranch program and discretionary funds spent by the executive branch.