More than five years after a special prosecutor first brought charges against a staggering number of Navajo leaders accused of misusing the tribe’s discretionary funds, three individuals are still facing criminal trials.
A trial for Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mel R. Begay is set for March 14 in district court in Window Rock, Arizona. Begay, who has served as a delegate for 12 years, faces 16 complaints of making or permitting false vouchers. Seven of those complaints allege that between 2006 and 2010, Begay personally authorized at least $33,750 in financial assistance for his six children.
Trials are still pending in the Dilkon, Arizona, district court for former Council delegates Hoskie Kee and Young Jeff Tom.
The three defendants are the last of 15 Council delegates and two tribal employees who faced a total of 140 criminal complaints, said Eric Dahlstrom, special prosecutor for the Navajo Nation. Dahlstrom took over as special prosecutor in 2011 after the tribe failed to renew former prosecutor Alan Balaran’s contract.
“We filed criminal complaints arising from the alleged misuse of the financial assistance program,” Dahlstrom said during a phone interview. “Under Navajo criminal procedure, you file a separate complaint for each criminal count, and we eventually filed 140 of those complaints against 17 people.”
The law firm also filed ethics complaints against 12 former Council delegates. The Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals heard those complaints, which carry no threat of incarceration, but can affect whether individuals are eligible to run for office in the future.
All of the ethics cases have been resolved, Dahlstrom said. In 10 of the cases, the Office of Hearings and Appeals found that the delegate had violated the Navajo Nation’s ethics laws. One case was dismissed and one was settled without a finding of violation, Dahlstrom said. In several of the cases, the respondent agreed to reimburse the Nation.
Fourteen of the 17 criminal cases have gone through the courts, Dahlstrom said. All of them resulted in conviction – either through guilty pleas or pleas of no contest. None of the individuals has been sentenced, though each faces fines and up to one year in jail.
The 17 individuals charged in the criminal cases are accused of taking nearly $850,000 of discretionary funds. Delegates facing ethics charges allegedly took $270,000 – for a total of more than $1.1 million.
The cases broke in the fall of 2010 when Balaran filed criminal charges against 77 of the 88 sitting Council delegates, as well as additional elected and appointed officials and staff members. During the following years, prosecutors continued filing charges against a growing number of individuals, often alleging people conspired together to approve financial payments for families of their colleagues.
A total of 142 people, including Navajo Nation Council delegates, the controller, the attorney general and a former president, were accused of a converting millions of dollars in discretionary funds to personal use. Discretionary funds are those allocated to delegates to provide assistance to citizens with emergency needs, including single parents, elders and families who need burial funds.
The original charges ultimately were dismissed and replaced with civil suits, which went after lawmakers who “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.
After Dahlstrom completed his investigation, he dismissed all of the remaining civil cases and filed criminal charges only when “the amount of money involved was significant or there was evidence that there was either a misrepresentation or some other wrongdoing by the individual,” he said. People accused of technical violations or of taking small amounts of money were exonerated.
Dahlstrom commended the Nation for “self-policing” and holding government officials responsible.
“The number of individuals who have publicly taken responsibility for their deeds is evidence that these prosecutions were necessary and important,” he said. “The Nation has demonstrated to citizens that the government is going to hold officials responsible when they misuse Navajo money.”