Ex-Navajo legislative leader pleads guilty to misusing tribal funds, agrees to aid prosecutors

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The Navajo Nation's former legislative leader pleaded guilty Wednesday in what prosecutors say was a scheme to divert tribal funds to his family.

Lawrence Morgan admitted to conspiring with his onetime colleagues on the Navajo Nation Council to commit bribery. The plea was part of an agreement to aid prosecutors in similar tribal corruption cases.

The agreement logged in Window Rock District Court allows Morgan to avoid jail time and be sentenced to probation if he fully cooperates. Morgan said he knew it was illegal to authorize payments to his children or family members, so he agreed to provide nearly $18,000 to the families of other lawmakers in exchange for his family members receiving equal financial assistance.

Morgan's attorney, David Jordan, said after Wednesday's hearing that Morgan is expecting to be called as a witness next month in the first trial stemming from the investigation of the council's use of discretionary funds. He said Morgan, who served eight years as speaker of the council, is committed to revealing the truth about the fund meant for Navajos facing extreme hardship and promoting healing.

"Those deals came to his attention, and he did some of them, too," Jordan told The Associated Press. "As he looks back now, that was where he made his mistake. That was where he should have stopped it. He should have said, 'You can't do through the back door what you can't do through the front door.' And he regrets that."

Morgan's acknowledgment of guilt came nearly four years after some lawmakers were accused by a special prosecutor of misusing tribal funds. At the time, Morgan said it was incumbent upon lawmakers to cooperate to the fullest extent to uphold the public's trust in its government.

Morgan's office requested a review of discretionary spending from the tribe's auditor general in September 2009. Senior auditor Alfreda Lee said Wednesday the office has reviewed spending from the discretionary accounts of the legislative and executive branches from fiscal years 2006 to 2009. She said some of those findings have been referred to the tribe's ethics office and shared with prosecutors, but the completed audits have not been released because they are undergoing quality review.

Morgan was charged criminally in December with six counts of bribery and a single count of conspiracy. Those charges will be dropped under the plea agreement after he is sentenced. The agreement also allows the tribe to seek restitution but not in an amount greater than he acknowledged misusing.

Prosecutors said Morgan's statements "make it absolutely clear that the criminal conspiracy was carried out to hide the payment of large amounts of money directly to the immediate families of council delegates."

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court criticized the spending in a 2011 ruling and banned any further use of discretionary funds until guidelines are established to regulate the use.

Five of Morgan's former colleagues whom he oversaw on the council are scheduled to go to trial Oct. 14 on bribery and conspiracy charges. The Window Rock court has set aside more than two months to jointly hear the cases against council Speaker Johnny Naize, Delegate David Tom, and former delegates George Arthur, Leonard Teller and Ernest Yazzie Jr.

Morgan and prosecutors called on other defendants to take responsibility for their actions. The five men have pleaded not guilty.

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