Speaker of Navajo Nation Council is charged with bribery

By Marley Shebala
News From Indian Country

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. – Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize was charged with ten counts of criminal bribery charges and one criminal charge of conspiracy to commit bribery in the Navajo Nation Window Rock District Court on Dec. 3.

The Navajo Nation Special Prosecutor filed the 11 criminal complaints against Naize, who heads the Navajo Nation’s Legislative Branch and presides over the Council and the Council’s Naabiki’yati’ Committee, which is the top standing committee.

 The conspiracy and bribery charges against Naize stem from an investigation by the Special Prosecutors that started in July 2011 of the alleged misuse of millions of dollars by tribally elected officials from a financial emergency assistance fund or discretionary fund created and administered by the Council, which was divided among the Delegates by the number of communities that they represented.

According to the Special Prosecutors, the 20th and 21st Councils dumped about $32 million in public money into their slush fund during each of their four-year terms, which were between 2003 and 2011. The current Council is the 22nd.

On Dec. 5, Dine’ Resources & Information Center asked Naize about the 11 criminal charges that involved about $37,000 in slush funds and a “You scratch my back and I will scratch your back” scheme that involved eight former and current Council delegates, including former Speaker Lawrence Morgan.

Naize, who had just adjourned the Naabik’iyati’ Committee and was walking out of the Council with Resources and Development Committee Chairperson Katherine Benally, said, “I’m not about to talk about that. Please let me take care of this.”

Naize was then asked when he would be making a statement. He hastily said, “Please, please, please, I got to take care of this thing.”

Naize’s chief of staff, Jarvis Williams, intervened and said, “Right now we’re reviewing it.” And he said that a statement from Naize would be released after they reviewed it.

Williams was asked if Naize would consider stepping down as speaker, especially since the Council is in the midst of taking action on a $220 million bond or loan for reservation-wide community projects. “Any type of statement right now is premature,” Williams answered.

Council Delegate Lorenzo Curley, who serves on the Budget and Finance Committee, said that B&F Committee Chairperson LoRenzo Bates brought up the issue of the investigation and criminal charges filed against current delegates by the Special Prosecutors and its negative impact on financial investors for the bond to the Council.

“Our response was that there are other factors that override that concern because what the investors will look at is the infrastructures and the law set in place that will protect their parties, the people that will do business with the Navajo nation,” Curley explained.

He added that Naize would probably select a speaker pro temp to preside over the Council’s debate and decision on the $220 million bond, which would mean that the speaker pro temp would sign the agreement with the financial institutions that assist with the bond/loan.

“I will have to look at the charges to see if they are substantial enough for him to step aside or if they would be minor,” Curley said. “That is what I would have to consider. The position of speaker of the council is an elevated position and because of that and these criminal charges, he should step aside and allow another Council delegate to assume the position as a speaker pro temp until the charges are resolved.”

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who was being lobbied to sign a petition for a special Council session to address the $220 million bond, said he didn’t know that criminal charges were filed against Naize.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll be learning about it,” Tsosie added. “It is a serious thing. And I would expect him to inform us. Whether he does it or not, I don’t know. But I expect him to inform us.”

Delegate Charles Damon III said he didn’t know anything about the criminal charges against Naize and so he couldn’t make a comment.

According to the criminal complaint against Naize, he, Morgan and Delegates Lena Manheimer, Orlanda Smith-Hodge, David Tom, George Arthur, Elmer Milford, Andy Ayze and Leonard Teller allegedly conspired to bribe each other by agreeing to approve discretionary funds for each other’s family members, which kept them in compliance with tribal laws that made it illegal for elected officials to directly approve financial assistance for their family members.

The Special Prosecutors also filed criminal charges of conspiracy and bribery against Morgan, Manheimer and Arthur on Dec. 3. The three former Delegates each face one count of conspiracy and 6 counts of bribery.

A total of about $186,000 in slush funds was allegedly misused by Naize, Morgan, Manheimer and Arthur in what the Special Prosecutors described as a quid-pro-quo or favor for a favor arrangement.

The complaints against Morgan, Manheimer and Arthur also named other former Delegates that also were involved in their alleged conspiracy to bribe each with tribal discretionary funds. The other former Delegates are Hoskie Kee, Young Jeff Tom Sr., Ernest D. Yazzie, Norman John II, Ervin Keeswood, Willie Begay, Jack Colorado, and Edward Jim Sr.

The current Delegates that are involved in the Dec. 3 criminal complaints are Naize and Tom.

The arraignment of Naize, Morgan, Manheimer and Arthur is at 9 a.m. in the Window Rock District Court on March 11 and 12.

The Special Prosecutors are the law firm of Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, & Schoenburg, LLP, which has offices in Santa Fe, N.M., and Tempe, Ariz.

Naize represents the communities of Tachee-Blue Gap, Many Farms, Nazlini, Tselani-Cottonwood, and Low Mountain. Tom represents the communities of Toadlena-Two Grey Hills, Red Valley Tse’alnaozt’i’i’, Sheepsprings, Beclabito, and Gadiiahi-To’Koi).

During the time that the alleged conspiracy and briber charges occurred Naize was representing Cottonwood, Nazlini and Tsselani. Tom was representing Beclabeto and Gadii’ahi chapters.