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9 more charged in Navajo discretionary fund probe

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The list of Navajo Nation officials charged in an investigation of discretionary fund spending has grown, with nine former tribal lawmakers being accused of funneling money to family members for ceremonies, a ``worthy cause,'' hardships, clothing, travel, education and other expenses.

Prosecutors announced the filing of 72 criminal complaints this week that allege the lawmakers conspired with colleagues to give more than $300,000 to family members through 580 separate payments. Each defendant faces a single count of conspiracy and six counts of bribery.

Prosecutors say the scheme was simple- you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. An outline of payments shows that Harry Clark, for example, granted $500 to another lawmaker's 5-year-old grandson for education assistance and the same amount went to Clark's son for education expense. The requests were made on the same day, court documents show.

``This scheme was unlawful because it had the effect of paying financial assistance funds to immediate family of council delegates,'' prosecutors said in a statement.

David Jordan, an attorney representing three of the defendants, said Friday that his clients- Harry Williams, Young Jeff Tom and Clark _have denied making any deals.

``At this point, I don't have any reason to believe it would be anything but an aggressive defense that this never happened,'' he said.

Justin Jones, an attorney for Harry Willeto, said he hadn't received notice of the charges or talked to his client. The other defendants- Jack Colorado, Leonard Teller, Orlanda Smith-Hodge, Raymond Joe and Hoskie Kee- either did not have telephone listings or return messages left by The Associated Press.

The filings in Window Rock District Court bring to 12 the number of people facing criminal charges in the investigation. Three others are accused of ethics violations.

The Navajo Nation appointed special prosecutors from the Rothstein Law Firm to take over the case in 2011 after a civil complaint was filed alleging that dozens of former and current tribal officials defrauded the tribal government in the use or management of $36 million in discretionary funds.

Along with bribery and conspiracy, Smith-Hodge also is charged with four counts of abuse of office and five counts of unauthorized compensation. Prosecutors say she received at least four payments for a child living in her house that she deposited into a joint account she shared with the child then transferred the funds to her own personal bank account.

Prosecutors have cleared some of the delegates named in their latest filing from the civil case, saying there was no indication of wrongdoing.

The families of Joe and Smith-Hodge received the bulk of the payments, of around $25,000 each, according to court documents. Some of the reasons stated for needing assistance are vague, such as financial hardship, travel, youth enrichment or education. A few gave no reason.

The reason cited for a $500 payment in 2008 to the husband of a tribal lawmaker was ``worthy cause.'' In 2007, $500 went to Kee's then-4-year-old son for youth enrichment and school clothing, the court documents state. Money also was sought for tuition payments, utilities, rent, propane, to replace a stolen trumpet and vehicle repair.

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.

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