Navajo Nation lawmaker who was re-elected in November charged with misusing tribal funds

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — Prosecutors have brought nine criminal charges against a recently re-elected Navajo lawmaker who is accused of illegally authorizing nearly $34,000 in payments to his children from a now-defunct discretionary fund, including a daughter who posed as a voter in need of cash for firewood, coal and a new transmission for her car.

The case filed this week in Window Rock District Court threatens Mel R. Begay's chances of serving out his next four-year term representing five Navajo communities in New Mexico. He is the only current member of the Navajo Nation Council facing criminal charges in an investigation of the discretionary fund.

Messages left for Begay at the tribe's legislative branch offices were not immediately returned Tuesday. The Colorado law firm representing him said it hadn't seen the criminal complaints and declined to comment.

Begay is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 22 on a single count of conspiracy to commit fraud, two counts of making or permitting a false Navajo Nation voucher and six counts of conflict of interest.

Prosecutors said, in one instance, one of Begay's daughters wrote to him as a voter from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, and requested money for heating costs and a new transmission for her car. She did not disclose her relationship. Prosecutors say she was 15 at the time, making her ineligible to vote and drive a car.

Tribal court records show Begay approved a $500 payment to his daughter.

Prosecutors said none of the 60 letters that Begay's six children wrote to him asking for financial assistance disclosed that he was their father. Tribal law prohibits nepotism, and no one person was allowed to receive payment from the discretionary fund more than once over a 12-month period, prosecutors said. Begay authorized 60 checks for his children from 2006 to 2010, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said the discretionary fund was intended for elderly Navajos on fixed incomes, the unemployed, students enrolled in academic programs, burial expenses and other limited circumstances where tribal members had no other monetary resource to pay expenses.

The investigation into discretionary spending has led to the resignation of two Navajo Nation Council members this year, David Tom and Johnny Naize, who served as the head of the tribe's legislative branch. If Begay pleads guilty in the case or is convicted, he would be removed from office, election officials have said.

Some former lawmakers have settled their criminal cases by agreeing to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit bribery and cooperate with prosecutors. Others are awaiting trial, have pending ethics cases or have been cleared of wrongdoing altogether.

Former lawmaker Orlanda Smith-Hodge pleaded guilty Monday in tribal court to conspiracy to commit bribery. She had been charged with six counts of bribery, four counts of abuse of office and five counts of unauthorized compensation. Prosecutors said she funneled nearly $25,000 in tribal funds to her family.

Those charges will be dismissed with prejudice if she aids prosecutors in cases against her onetime colleagues.

A sentencing date will be set once those cases are resolved. Smith-Hodge faces up to a year in jail, probation and community service. The tribe also could seek restitution.

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