Navajo VP, Ben Shelly, charged in slush fund investigation

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

A Navajo presidential candidate and his running mate are among tribal officials charged in an investigation of slush funds just weeks before the November election.

Tribal Vice President Ben Shelly pleaded not guilty last week to tribal charges of fraud, conspiracy and theft. Each misdemeanor count carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $5,000 if convicted. His running mate, council Delegate Rex Lee Jim, also is charged in the probe.

Documents released by the tribal court so far show that 38 people have been charged in the investigation, and officials say more names are expected to be revealed. Not all have been formally served with complaints.

The tribe’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday that criminal complaints alleging conspiracy, fraud, abuse of office, forgery and theft had been filed in the probe of Tribal Council discretionary funds. Samson Cowboy, director of public safety for the tribe, said some civilians also face charges but wouldn’t say how many.

Court documents allege that Shelly, a former 16-year lawmaker, conspired with six others to benefit himself and his immediate family, including his wife, grandchildren and a sister, in 2005 and 2006.

On four occasions, Shelly filed applications for discretionary funds on behalf of his family and personally approved the requests, a complaint alleged. Tribal ethics and rules laws have limits on the value of gifts lawmakers can receive and prohibit engaging in conflicts of interest.

“While Navajo constituents often went without, Mr. Shelly and his co-conspirators took care of their own and ensured each family member would receive funds to which it was not entitled,” a complaint read.

The charges are likely to hurt Shelly’s chance at becoming the only tribal vice president elected to the top position. He faces Lynda Lovejoy, who is seeking to become the tribe’s first female president, in the Nov. 2 election.

“It’s very untimely,” said Shelly campaign spokesman Deswood Tome. “We want to be very open about this and we want the people to know this has taken place–that’s important.”

Tome said each payment will be scrutinized to determine if it was for a legitimate emergency or hardship. He said at least $500 of the $8,850 Shelly is alleged to have received was from five council members who helped him with burial expenses when his mother died in 2006. A payment to Shelly’s daughter was for educational expenses, Tome said.

Police served some delegates with the complaints just before they convened for the fourth day of their fall session in the tribal capital of Window Rock. The arraignments are scheduled to resume this week in tribal court.

The delegates in the council chambers went into executive session last week to discuss the implications of the complaints.

Delegate Lorenzo Curley, who doesn’t expect to be named in the investigation, said he believes the allegations might amount to ethics violations but wouldn’t fall under the criminal code.

“As long as you’re doing it right and in good faith in processing these claims, there’s no reason to believe you’ve run afoul of the law,” he said.

Some delegates said they believed the incoming Tribal Council would put a stop to the use of discretionary funds as a result of the investigation. Others don’t see that happening.

Tribal member Ed Becenti said he expects those charged to be upfront with constituents about the allegations.

“They have to,” he said. “They were elected out of trust, confidence. That’s just simple communication. If you got yourself in trouble with money, be responsible.”

The Tribal Council called for a special prosecutor last year to look into the tribal president’s relationship with two companies that had operated on the reservation. The Navajo attorney general accepted that request but also expanded the probe to include the council’s use of discretionary funds, to the surprise of the council.

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.

The council, and the Office of the President and Vice President receive millions of dollars a year through supplemental budget appropriations to dole out to elderly Navajos on fixed income, college students, organizations in need or Navajos looking for emergency funding.

Alan Balaran was hired as the special prosecutor earlier this year. His duties later were expanded to include a tribal ranch program, and discretionary funds given to the tribal president’s and vice president’s office.

Balaran declined to comment on the investigation.