WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A jury found Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay guilty on 10 criminal counts related to giving $34,000 of discretionary fund money to family members.
After seven days in trial, the six-member jury from the Navajo Nation, three men and three women, deliberated for less than three hours before returning guilty verdicts for conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of submitting false vouchers for Navajo Nation money.
The charges were part of the investigation into former and current members of the Navajo Nation Council, who special prosecutors said misused the discretionary fund by engaging in quid pro quo agreements to direct money from the fund to each others' family members. Former Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize pled guilty and stepped down as a result of his involvement in the case in September 2014.
Begay, a current Navajo Nation council delegate, represents the Bahastl'a'a', Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti and Tohatchi chapters. Special prosecutors said Begay is the 17th criminal conviction obtained for misuse of the discretionary fund. In addition 10 former council delegates were found in violation for ethics. Begay was the first defendant to be found guilty by a jury. Charges still remain against one defendant.
Begay is set to be sentenced May 17 and, under Navajo law, sentencing can include up to 365 days in prison and as much as $5,000 in fines plus restitution for each complaint.
"This prosecution demonstrates that the Navajo Nation will enforce its laws against anyone who violates the law, including its elected officials," the special prosecutor said.
The special prosecutor called 14 witnesses and submitted approximately 70 exhibits in its case. Begay did not call any witnesses and did not testify on his own behalf.
On March 21, Window Rock District Judge Carol Perry released Begay's wife Mitzie Begay from jail. She was jailed for contempt of court March 7 when she was unwilling to answer questions from the prosecution concerning her husband at her deposition. Mitzie claimed she could not be compelled to testify. The court determined that the law required Mitzie to testify and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court denied her request that it intervene and prevent her from answering questions. On March 21, when Perry learned that neither the prosecution or the defense would call Mitzie as a witness, she was released from custody by Perry.
The prosecutors said the jury spoke for all Navajos when they held Begay, an elected official, accountable for his misuse of Navajo Nation money.
"The entire Navajo Nation owes the jury its heartfelt thanks for its service," the special prosecutor said in a statement.
In 2014, the Navajo Nation Council amended portions the Navajo Election Code, to clarify qualifications for elected officials. The resolution designated authority to the Navajo Election Admistration to enfore the qualifications. The resolution also addressed situations where elected officials are found guilty of certain offenses
"Upon assuming an elective office, an official shall maintain the qualifications required of the respective office, as provided herein, throughout the term of such office," the resolution reads. "A conviction during a term of office of an offense for which candidates can be disqualified pursuant to applicable Navajo Nation law shall be grounds for automatic removal of an elected official unless otherwise required by a removal procedure under Navajo Nation law. Officials no longer eligible to hold office are subject to removal..."
Officials with the legislative branch said now that the court has taken action, it is left to the Navajo Election Administration to address Begay's situation administratively in accordance with the mandated provisions set forth in the Navajo Election Code.
The Election Code also provides provisions for a special election to be held upon the removal of a delegate.
"Whenever there is a vacancy in a council delegate position during the first half of the term of office, at the request of the affected Chapter or Chapters within a precinct, the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council may select and appoint an interim delegate from the precinct until the vacancy is filled by special election and the new delegate takes office," the election code reads.
It further states that the interim delegate would be required to meet qualifications and shall only be certified after a review by the Navajo Election Administration.