WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel Begay was sentenced to jail for three years, followed by a year of probation, restitution and community service for his role in abusing the Navajo Nation discretionary fund.
After seven days in trial, a 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.
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.
Begay, a former Navajo Nation council delegate, represented 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.
After hearing from the probation officer, the special prosecutor and Begay's counsel, the court, in addition to the jail term and probation, said Begay owed restitution to the tune of $4,500 ($500 for each of the nine false voucher verdicts and 1,000 hours of community service.
Marc Lowry, lead attorney for the special prosecutor, said the Nation is pleased with the judge's ruling.
"The entire Navajo Nation can rest assured that justice has been served in this case and that Mr. Begay has been held accountable for this misuse of the Navajo Nation funds," he said.
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.