Prosecutor to group trials of former Navajo Nation Council members

Move expected to save money and help defendants in discretionary fund abuse cases receive a fair trial

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A Window Rock District judge ordered July 18 that trials against current and former members of the Navajo Nation Council accused of using the Nation's discretionary Fund for personal use be grouped together to save expense and avoid any prejudice as each defendant comes before the court.

The fund was put in place to help needy members of the Navajo Nation.

The special prosecutor asked the court to group the trials in the following groups:

Group one: Johnny Naize, David Tom, George Arthur, Leonard Teller and Ernest Yazzie.

Group two: Hoskie Key, Lawrence T. Morgan and Young Jeff Tom, Sr.

Group three: Harry H. Clark, Jack Colorado, Lena Manheimer and Orlanda Smith-Hodge.

Window Rock District Court Judge Carol Perry granted the special prosecutors' request to group the trials together.

The special prosecutors argued for the Navajo Nation that conducting separate trials would create a lottery system where the first defendant tried could face the most risk while one tried last might benefit. They also argued that media coverage of the trials could influence the jury and that separate trials would cause delay and impinge on a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Traditionalist Harry Walters, who appeared as a witness for Teller, said it is very difficult for humans to label anything in a group.

"We are all different, we may be in the same group but individually we are different through that," Walter said in the order released from the court.

Perry said the court agreed that individuality is critical to a Diné and that it valued arguments presented that incorporate traditional teachings and perspectives but it must apply those arguments carefully in formulating rules of law.

Perry also said the court found truth in the special prosecutor's argument that separate trials would be a financial burden for the court.

"Currently, the court is largely persuaded by its inability to finance separate criminal trials," Perry's order said. "This court must balance the due process rights of the defendants while also protecting the due process rights of the Navajo people to whom the government treasury belongs."

Perry said not only would the court face operational barriers in attempting to conduct numerous separate trials but there was no allocation in the present district court budget to finance separate criminal trials.

"The Navajo Nation Supreme Court in Acothley v. Perry has named these discretionary fund cases an extraordinary circumstance where this court must find a workable solution to manage the adjudication of the many criminal charges," Perry said in the order.

According to the special prosecutor before the July 18 hearing, the Window Rock District Court allowed former Council Delegate Ernest D. Yazzie, Jr. to withdraw his claim that the special prosecutor had coerced and intimidated Yazzie family members during the investigation into the alleged discretionary fund abuse. According to the special prosecutor, Yazzie withdrew his allegations after learning during a hearing that any false allegation of prosecutorial misconduct could be used against him at his trial.

On July 14, the court rejected the claim by former Council Delegate George Arthur that the conspiracy to commit bribery, as well as the six bribery complaints, had been filed by the special prosecutor after the time allowed by the Navajo Nation's statute of limitations had expired.

According to a press release by the special prosecutor, the court's ruling will now allow a trial of all the criminal complaints against Arthur. According to the special prosecutor, the court's recent ruling in Arthur's case also cleared the way for all of the criminal complaints filed against former and current council delegates to be brought to trial.

"As a result, unless the remaining defendants decide to reach a negotiated plea agreement, the Navajo Nation will take each of these cases to trial," the special prosecutor's press release said.

The court also recently rejected Arthur's motion to dismiss the seven criminal complaints filed against him on sovereign immunity grounds. The court explained that Navajo Nation's Sovereign Immunity does not shield government officials from prosecution for unlawful conduct. The special prosecutor explained that the court's reasoning in Arthur's case should apply equally to all of the remaining criminal defendants in the government corruption cases.

On July 15 the court accepted an agreement between the special prosecutor and former Council Delegate Harry Willeto in which he agreed to provide assistance to the Navajo Nation in its efforts to resolve the remaining cases.

By entering a guilty plea to conspiracy to commit bribery, Willeto acknowledged that:

"[F]rom 2005 to 2011, I agreed with other Navajo Nation officials, specifically Harry Clark, Jack Colorado and Johnny Naize, whereby we exchanged benefits with each other in order to influence and control our exercise of discretion in causing the disbursement of financial assistance funds to each other's families," the special prosecutor's press release said.

"As part of his guilty plea, Willeto confirmed that he authorized $11,450 for family members of Harry Clark, Jack Colorado and Johnny Naize with the understanding that those delegates would, in return, authorize the same amount to his family members," the special prosecutor's press release said.

The special prosecutor said statements made by Willeto and other cooperating delegates and witnesses assisting the Navajo Nation made it clear how the alleged criminal conspiracy was carried out to hide the payment of large amounts of money directly to the immediate families of council delegates.

The special prosecutor stated, "[I hope] that the remaining delegates will consider doing the right and honorable thing, as Council Delegate Willeto has done, and concede what they did and allow the Navajo Nation to fairly resolve the charges pending against the remaining defendants."

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