Criminal charges filed against ex-Navajo lawmaker

Prosecutors file first of criminal charges in investigation of Navajo discretionary funds

Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A former Navajo Nation lawmaker has been charged with receiving kickbacks, submitting false information and conspiring with a colleague to funnel nearly $100,000 to members of his immediate family while he served on the Tribal Council.

Prosecutors from the Rothstein Law Firm announced the filing of 24 charges against Ernest Yazzie Jr. on Tuesday. The charges represent the first criminal case brought by the law firm that took over an investigation of the Tribal Council's use of discretionary funds in 2011, but it won't be the only case.

Prosecutors have said they intend to file charges against other current or former Navajo lawmakers. They say their investigation has revealed two common abuses — that lawmakers gave money to their own families or the families of other lawmakers.

Criminal complaints filed in Window Rock District Court allege nearly one-third of the discretionary funds allocated to Yazzie between 2006 and 2009 went to his wife and three children. Yazzie served two terms on the Navajo Nation Council starting in 2003, representing the communities of Churchrock and Breadsprings in New Mexico. He lost a bid for re-election in 2010, after voters reduced the Tribal Council from nearly 90 members to 24.

At the time, another prosecutor had brought criminal cases against a majority of the 88 lawmakers, alleging massive fraud in the use of discretionary funding intended for Navajos on fixed incomes, college students, organizations in need or Navajos seeking money for emergencies. The prosecutor, Alan Balaran, eventually settled or dismissed those charges but filed a civil case that included many of the same defendants.

Balaran's contract wasn't renewed. The Rothstein Law Firm took over the investigation and is evaluating the civil complaint. Of the 85 defendants named in it, 75 remain.

Yazzie is representing himself in the criminal case filed this week. A call to a number listed for him in Sanders didn't go through.

In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Yazzie said he believed the complaints filed by Balaran were politically motivated and meant to keep certain lawmakers out of office. He defended the use of discretionary spending, saying: "It's our own people doing for their own people. What's wrong? At least us, we help the people."

The criminal complaints against Yazzie outline an alleged scheme in which Yazzie would provide money to the family of Navajo Nation Council Delegate David Tom, and Tom would send money back to Yazzie's family. Among the charges Yazzie faces is lying to prosecutors by saying he had no idea how his family received funding from Tom.

"The exchanges of financial assistance requests between defendant Yazzie and council Delegate David Tom at about the same time and for the same or similar amounts of money show the underlying agreement or understanding that these two men had to maintain their conspiracy," prosecutors wrote in court documents.

Tom, who represents several Navajo communities on the council, has not been charged with a crime. Neither he nor his attorney immediately responded to messages left Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Prosecutors allege Yazzie helped his children, who were minors at the time, submit false applications for discretionary funding. One application filed on behalf of Yazzie's then-12-year-old daughter was for $2,500 "to pay for summer classes at Gallup, University of New Mexico branch to study chemistry and further my education," even though she did not go to UNM, prosecutors said. Another was for $2,000 for home renovations for a then-14-year-old child who was "unemployed" and looking for work as a "part-time gas station attendant," the court documents state.

Among other expenses listed for Yazzie's children and approved for financial assistance were dental bills, a laptop, clothing, meals, Navajo dresses, utility bills, hospital bills, traditional ceremonies, "everything related to education," and a stove to keep warm, court documents state.

Yazzie's son Ernie Yazzie said Tuesday the family likely would comment, but he offered no immediate details. Prosecutors list him among the beneficiaries of the discretionary funding.

Several of the complaints allege the elder Yazzie received kickbacks after securing money for his relatives. In one instance, prosecutors say Yazzie delivered a $1,500 check to a relative in a trading post parking lot and required the relative to give $1,400 of it back to him.

Any tribal member who lacked resources to pay their expenses could apply for discretionary spending, but Navajo law prohibits nepotism.

The Navajo Supreme Court has since halted the practice of discretionary spending until rules can be put in place to govern it. About $32 million in discretionary funding was available to tribal lawmakers over the eight years Yazzie was in office.

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