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Jury Convicts Navajo Lawmaker In Discretionary Fund Case

Noel Lyn Smith/The Daily Times

A Navajo Nation lawmaker has been convicted in a rare jury trial of funneling nearly $34,000 to his children from a tribal discretionary fund meant for Navajos facing extreme financial hardship.

Three men and three women spent less than three hours deliberating Wednesday in Window Rock before finding Mel Begay guilty on 10 criminal counts. He faces the loss of his legislative seat, jail time and fines.

Begay’s attorney, Jeffrey Rasmussen, said late Wednesday that he doesn’t believe Begay got a fair trial and will appeal the conviction to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court after the May 17 sentencing.

“We expect it will be overturned on appeal, but still it was disappointing,” he said.

Begay’s trial was the first of two in a yearslong investigation of lawmakers’ spending from the now-defunct discretionary fund. About two dozen other current and former lawmakers have resolved their criminal or ethics cases through plea agreements with prosecutors.

Prosecutors outlined a series of requests from Begay’s children to jurors during the trial that started last week, including $1,800 in three payments for a band trip that largely was paid for by his daughter’s school and summer tuition that didn’t exist. They said Begay and his children never disclosed their relationship.

Tribal law prohibits nepotism, and prosecutors say Begay attested to following the laws when he approved the requests.

Rasmussen said the discretionary fund program was poorly designed and lawmakers weren’t trained on what was permitted. Begay’s family was struggling to pay for education expenses at a private school and felt they were eligible for assistance, Rasmussen said.

According to court documents, Begay’s daughters also asked for help with heating and utility bills, rental payments and car parts, sometimes posing as voters from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. Prosecutors say the girls were minors at the time.

Prosecutors said Begay’s conviction demonstrates that the tribe will hold elected officials accountable for misusing tribal funds.

“The entire Navajo Nation owes the jury its heartfelt thanks for its service,” the prosecution said in a statement.

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