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Watchdog: Follow the Money

Navajo lawmaker seeks removal of council speaker

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Associated Press,Watchdog,Arizona,Follow the Money,Native Americans

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A Navajo lawmaker submitted a proposal Tuesday that would remove the speaker of the Tribal Council, who is facing criminal charges in an investigation into the misuse of public funds.

Alton Joe Shepherd said Speaker Johnny Naize's leadership has come into question since being charged last year with bribery and conspiracy.

Criminal complaints filed in tribal court allege that Naize and other current and former tribal lawmakers engaged in a scheme to divert money intended for Navajos in need.

Naize says he's done nothing wrong and predicts he'll be cleared of all charges.

Shepherd's measure to remove Naize as the head of the legislative branch requires a two-thirds vote of the 24-member council. It would not remove Naize as a Tribal Council delegate representing parts of Arizona.

"The people have become more concerned about it," Shepherd told The Associated Press. "At least now we can certainly have that discussion among the council and on behalf of the people."

Naize has said he'll be exonerated on 10 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy. He is scheduled to be arraigned in March and says he won't step down while the case makes its way through court. His term ends in January 2015.

On Tuesday, he said in a statement that he was "disappointed and surprised" with Shepherd's proposal.

"As a former law enforcement officer, Mr. Shepherd should have recognized and upheld the principle of 'due process' and the right of being presumed 'innocent until proven guilty,'" Naize said.

Prosecutors say Naize conspired with several other current and former council delegates to divert more than $73,000 from the discretionary spending fund intended for student financial aid, people facing extreme hardship, assistance for elderly Navajo and other uses. They say Naize's family received $36,550 in exchange for his providing $36,900 to members of other families.

The special prosecutors from the Rothstein Law Firm took over the investigation into discretionary spending in 2011 after a civil complaint alleged that dozens of Navajo officials defrauded the tribal government in the use or management of $36 million.

About 20 people have been charged criminally or with ethics violations. About the same number has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Shepherd's legislation was submitted a day after residents in Shiprock, N.M., approved a resolution asking the tribe's attorney general to weigh in on whether officials charged with a crime should remain in office. The resolution states that Navajo people require their leaders, who are held to higher standards of integrity, to obey tribal laws.

Shiprock President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said he's not aware of any tribal law that addresses tribal employees whose criminal cases have not been resolved.

"It just seems for the lack of a better word, awkward, that you have people charged with such crimes and they're sitting there with fiduciary duty over millions of dollars," Yazzie said. "If these delegates have a sense of honor, they could recuse themselves from council."

Navajo Attorney General Harrison Tsosie said Tuesday that allegations of tribal lawmakers engaged in criminal activity may create an appearance of impropriety. But Tsosie said his office would have to examine the criminal complaints before determining whether the allegations are severe enough to result in the lawmakers leaving office on their own volition.

The earliest Shepherd's legislation could go up for a vote before the full council is at the winter session, scheduled for the last week of January, unless a special session is approved beforehand.

"The people are entitled to complete confidence in the loyalty and integrity of their government," Shepherd said. "The people need to know how their leader stands on these principles."

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