A Window Rock, Arizona district court judge last week handed down sentences to 11 defendants for the criminal misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Navajo Nation’s discretionary fund. Four more individuals are scheduled for sentencing by the end of September.
All 15 defendants – two former Navajo Nation Council speakers, 11 former council delegates and two legislative staff members – pleaded guilty or no contest to charges that included conspiracy, fraud, bribery, submitting false vouchers and conflict of interest. All of the cases resulted in conviction and all defendants entered into plea agreements after admitting to taking discretionary dollars for personal or family use, according to court records.
Delegates have access to discretionary funds, or slush funds, to provide assistance to constituents with emergency needs, including single parents, elders and families who need burial funds. A total of 18 defendants – including three who were previously sentenced – helped themselves to a total of $850,000 between 2005 and 2009.
District Court Judge Carol Perry on Wednesday ordered that the 11 defendants pay fines or restitution, complete community service, attend “life value” classes and write letters of apology. For some, the sentence also included jail time or probation.
According to court documents, defendants secured slush fund dollars in a variety of fraudulent ways: taking personal kickbacks, transferring financial assistance checks into personal bank accounts or falsifying requests for assistance and then pocketing the money. Some defendants personally authorized tens of thousands of dollars in financial assistance to their own family members. Others conspired with colleagues to approve each other’s requests for funds.
This week’s sentences come after three other former council delegates have already served jail time. Young Jeff Tom and Hoskie Kee both completed their sentences earlier this year. Mel Begay is currently incarcerated in the Window Rock jail.
Former Council Speaker Johnny Naize in 2014 pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy for issuing $36,550 in financial assistance to his colleagues in exchange for the same amount being given to his family. Perry on Wednesday ordered Naize to pay the full amount in restitution. In lieu of jail time, Naize will make presentations to the chapters he represented on the council, write letters of apology and complete 131 hours of community service.
Former delegates Leonard Teller and Jack Colorado each were sentenced to 180 days in jail, though 150 days of Colorado’s sentence were suspended. Perry also ordered Teller to pay $10,000 in restitution.
Former delegate David Tom was convicted of taking $95,000, but his family received an additional $120,000, court records state. Perry ordered Tom to pay $96,600 in restitution. He was not sentenced to jail because of a medical condition.
Former delegate Ernest D. Yazzie was charged with diverting more than $150,000 to family members. Perry ordered him to pay restitution, but did not specify how much.
Former delegate Orlanda Smith-Hodge was convicted of authorizing financial assistance 41 times to a 6-year-old household member. Her immediate family received more than $100,000 in assistance.
That money went to a bank account to which Smith-Hodge had access, prosecutors said during Wednesday’s hearing. On one occasion, Smith-Hodge withdrew the money within three days of the transaction – at a Las Vegas casino. Perry ordered Smith-Hodge to pay $24,800 in restitution.
Perry ordered four more former delegates each to pay restitution. Harry J. Willeto, Raymond Joe, Harry Williams Sr. and Harry H. Clark agreed to garnished wages or monthly payments until restitution is paid.
Former legislative branch employee Victoria Cecil was sentenced to a year of supervised probation and ordered to pay $750 in restitution. Sentencing is still pending for former council speaker Lawrence T. Morgan, former delegates Lena Manheimer and George Arthur, and former legislative branch employee Laura Calvin.
The sentences stem from a 2010 probe by special prosecutor Alan Balaran that resulted in criminal charges against 77 of the 88 sitting Navajo Nation Council delegates, as well as additional elected and appointed officials and staff members. Prosecutors continued filing charges during the subsequent years. A total of 142 people, including the tribe’s controller, the attorney general and a former president, were eventually accused of converting millions of dollars in discretionary funds to personal use.
The original charges ultimately were dismissed and replaced with civil suits that alleged lawmakers “covertly manipulated and converted Navajo, federal and state funds,” in a “wholesale pattern and practice of corruption.” The theft resulted in a “disparity of wealth whereby the vast majority of the Nation lives precipitously on the edge of poverty while those in positions of authority have amassed considerable wealth,” the 2011 civil suit states.
When the tribe failed to renew Balaran’s contract in 2011, a new prosecutor took over the case. Eric Dahlstrom filed a total of 140 criminal complaints against 18 individuals.
“Under Navajo criminal procedure, you file a separate complaint for each criminal count, and we eventually filed 140 of those complaints,” Dahlstrom said. With this week’s sentences, the cases are finally coming to a close.