Flagstaff, Ariz. • The leader of the Navajo Nation's legislative branch, his predecessor and two former lawmakers have been charged with misusing tribal discretionary funds intended for Navajos in need.
Prosecutors filed bribery and conspiracy charges this week against former Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan, his successor, Johnny Naize, and former council Delegates Lena Manheimer and George Arthur. Criminal complaints in Window Rock District Court allege the families of the four benefited by nearly $93,000 in a scheme in which the defendants approved financial payments for families of their colleagues.
Peterson Wilson, a legal advocate for Manheimer in a related civil case, said Friday that the criminal allegations are far-fetched. He said delegates agreed not to give money directly to their immediate or extended families, but nothing in the discretionary fund program prohibited those family members from seeking assistance from other lawmakers.
"My client just reads over the applications, then they forward it on to the processing point," he said. "From there, a system of checks and balances should take place. But I guess it never did."
Morgan's attorney in the civil case declined to comment. Arthur did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.
Manheimer, Arthur and Morgan face six counts each of bribery and a single count of conspiracy. Naize faces 10 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy.
A spokesman for Naize, Jared Touchin, said the speaker was aware of the charges but has not been served with the complaints.
"Once he has been served and has time to review the document, I'm sure he'll have more to say," Touchin said.
Arraignments are scheduled for March 11 and 12.
The Navajo Nation appointed special prosecutors from the Rothstein Law Firm to take over an investigation of the Tribal Council's discretionary spending in 2011 after a civil complaint alleged that dozens of former and current tribal officials defrauded the tribal government in the use or management of $36 million. Naize blasted that complaint as a shoddy piece of investigative work at the time and said it was distracting the council from its business.
Prosecutors reviewing the civil case now have filed criminal or ethics charges against some 20 people. About the same number of people has been cleared from the civil case after prosecutors said there was no indication of wrongdoing.
Any tribal member who lacked resources to pay their expenses could apply for discretionary spending, but Navajo law prohibits nepotism.
Prosecutors say the defendants asserted influence as elected officials to ensure their relatives or others in their households received payment for things like rent, computers, cellphone bills, tuition, clothing, hardships, spiritual gatherings and worthy causes. One payment approved by Manheimer was for vehicle repairs for a then-9-year-old in the same household as another former lawmaker.
Some of the latest defendants' family members received hundreds of dollars from different lawmakers in the same month, according to court documents.
By repeatedly extending benefits to each other's families and accepting benefits for their own, the defendants denied money to indigent citizens of the Navajo Nation, prosecutors said.
Naize's family received the most money at $36,550, followed by the families of Arthur at $25,900, Morgan at $17,550 and Manheimer at $12,650, the complaints allege. The defendants approved identical or nearly identical amounts of money for families of their colleagues, prosecutors said.
Wilson denies that Manheimer participated in the alleged scheme. He said the discretionary fund program was open to all Navajos, and he hasn't seen anything proving Manheimer was associated with a fraudulent act.
"If Lena wrote a check for her son, I would have a problem with that, but she didn't do that," he said. "Her son went to someone else."