Sure, giving his children more than $33,000 out of the Navajo Nation Council’s discretionary fund may have violated Navajo ethics rules – but was it a crime?
No, defense attorney Jeffrey Rasmussen told jurors on March 16, the opening day of Delegate Mel R. Begay’s corruption trial.
But the Window Rock District Court jury disagreed.
On March 23, after three hours of deliberation, the six-member jury in Judge Carol Perry’s courtroom found Begay guilty of all 10 charges against him. Begay was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and nine counts of making or permitting false Navajo Nation pay vouchers.
Begay’s trial was part of a larger corruption case involving some 70 members of the 88-member 22nd Navajo Nation Council. Most of the defendants agreed to plea arrangements with the special prosecutors; admitting guilt and agreeing to pay restitution to avoid any jail time.
The Begay case was the first to go to a jury trial.
It had been scheduled to begin March 15, but had to be postponed when the court was unable to seat the minimum 14 jurors required. More than 80 jury notices were sent out, but only 13 potential jurors appeared in Window Rock District Court.
Ironically, that forced Judge Carol Perry to delay the start of the trial after she had rejected several motions by the defense to dismiss the charges or limit the trial to five days maximum.
Begay (Coyote Canyon/Naschitti/ Mexican Springs/Tohatchi/Bahasti’ah) was accused of conspiring to funnel money to his six children between 2006 and 2010. The total amount was $33,750.
Rasmussen noted Begay signed forms affirming that he did not violate any ethics laws. Why didn’t the special prosecutor charge Begay with that infraction rather than filing criminal charges? Rasmussen asked in opening statements.
“This was not criminal,” he insisted.
Rasmussen also pointed out that Begay did not have the power to approve the request – that rested with Laura Calvin with the Office of the Speaker.
Calvin should be on trial, not Begay, Rasmussen suggested. (Calvin has already reached a plea deal with the special prosecutors.)
The defense’s argument seemed to be that Begay did file false funding requests, but that did not cross the line from ethical lapse to criminal action.
Of course, denying that Begay took part in the slush fund fiasco would be difficult given the massive amount of evidence introduced by the prosecution.
The eight-day trial featured 14 prosecution witnesses and about 70 exhibits. The defense called no witnesses and entered no exhibits.
Rehoboth Christian School band director Kevin Zwiers testified March 21 that the reasons for grant requests from Begay’s children were based on untruths. Begay’s children are identified through initials in the complaints.
One example was from his daughter – T.B. – who requested $1,620 in emergency assistance for a band trip. Begay approved $600.
But the cost per student was only $450 – and was covered by money earned through fundraisers, Zwiers told the jury.
Another of Begay’s daughters, M.B., sought $1,075 for a band trip in 2009. However the band did not go on a trip in 2009, Zwiers said.
The band schedules its trips two years in advance and only travels during spring break in even numbered years, Zwiers explained.
Rehoboth Chaplain Kevin Ruthven testified that a $1,055 request from another of Begay’s children, for a missionary trip to Mexico was also untrue. The cost per student for the trip was only $150, Ruthven said.
Rasmussen and lead prosecutor Mark Lowry did agree on one thing: the discretionary fund system was highly flawed.
A majority of the 88 22nd Navajo Nation Council delegates serving between 2006-2010 – including former Speakers Johnny Naize and Lawrence Morgan – were ensnared in the corruption case involving misuse of discretionary funding. More than 50 of the accused delegates have also agreed to testify against other defendants.
Following the verdict, Rasmussen decried the Window Rock District Court as the most “fundamentally unjust court” he has ever practiced in. He vowed to appeal the decision to the Navajo Supreme Court.
Sentencing for Begay is scheduled for May 17. He still serves on the council.
Current Speaker LoRenzo Bates did not comment on whether Begay would be removed from his seat, as prescribed under Navajo law.
Judge Carol Perry denied several last-minute motions filed by defense attorneys, paving the way for the case to come to trial more than two years after Begay was first charged.
On March 7, Begay’s wife, Mitzie, was jailed for contempt of court after she refused to answer questions from the special prosecutors.
Mitzie Begay claimed spousal privilege, but Perry had ordered her to submit to questioning. The prosecutors wanted to ask her about grants she may have received from other delegates.
Mitzie Begay was released from jail March 21 after Judge Perry noted that neither side planned to call her to the stand.
The special prosecutors charged the majority of delegates with conspiracy and fraud for misuse of the discretionary funds that each delegate receives to assist needy community members.
Instead, the prosecution claims, many delegates schemed to skim money from the fund to enrich their own families. Since delegates cannot give discretionary funds to their own immediate families, they conspired to circumvent the rules, the prosecution contends.
Delegate A, for example, would approve $5,000 for a member of Delegate B’s family, and Delegate B would reciprocate by approving the same amount to someone in Delegate A’s family.
Begay’s attorneys filed several motions recently.
Begay asked that the trial be restricted to five days because Rasmussen had a prior engagement. However, prosecutors objected, arguing that they had numerous witnesses and more than 100 exhibits to introduce at trial.
The prosecution also noted that Rasmussen was Begay’s co-counsel, and the lead attorney is Jennifer Baker.
Perry denied Begay’s motion.
Begay also sought a dismissal of the charges, claiming that the special prosecutor had overstepped his bounds.
The tribe, through its special prosecutors, argued that Begay and his legal team were filing “a frivolous motion.”
The judge again ruled against Begay.
With the Begay verdict, only one outstanding defendant remains.
Former delegate Hoskie Kee faces six charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. When he failed to appear for arraignment an arrest warrant was issued.
Navajo police arrested Kee in January 2014, following a brief foot chase near his residence in Haystack. Kee was given a $1,500 bond on released after agreeing to report to the probation department monthly. His trial has since been moved to Dilkon District Court, in Arizona.
Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates has asked the Election Administration to look into removing Begay from office.