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Updated Dec 20, 2013 - 4:41 pm

Navajo lawmakers assess future for council speaker

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- It's a scenario that almost surely would cause a stir anywhere: the leader of a government's legislative branch accused in a scheme to divert public money to his family.

On the Navajo Nation, the lawmakers who elected Johnny Naize as Tribal Council speaker largely have been silent in the public sphere about the bribery and conspiracy charges against him. None has called for him to step down, and none has thrown their support behind him to remain in the leadership post.

But they are talking among themselves and to their constituents about the image the allegations create, and some are suggesting Naize should focus on resolving the charges instead of leading lawmakers on the country's largest American Indian reservation.

``If he's serving as a speaker while defending himself, he'll have little time to do both,'' said Delegate Leonard Tsosie. ``He needs to look at that, too. And it's really for his own benefit.''

Naize is scheduled to be arraigned in March on 10 counts of conspiracy and a bribery count, stemming from an investigation into lawmakers' use of tribal discretionary funds. Prosecutors say Naize's family received $36,550 in discretionary funding in exchange for his providing $36,900 to family members of current and former council delegates.

The money was intended for uses such as student financial aid, people facing extreme hardship and assistance for elderly Navajo.

Naize says he won't step down and that he will devote his time as speaker to ``accomplishing the work of the Navajo Nation with the dignity and care that Dine citizens deserve.'' His second consecutive term as speaker and as a council delegate ends in January 2015.

The probe into the discretionary funds began after a larger Tribal Council of 88 delegates voted in 2009 to place then-President Joe Shirley Jr. on administrative leave over allegations that he acted unethically and illegally in dealing with two companies that had operated on the reservation.

The allegations never were made public, and Shirley never was charged. A tribal judge ruled that the council acted outside its authority. The decision later upheld by the tribe's Supreme Court came on the eve of an election that reduced the council to 24 members.

Delegate Lorenzo Curley said the council believed it had the moral authority at the time to place Shirley on leave until the allegations were cleared up.

The situation with Naize is similar, except that nearly all delegates on the previous council and some on the current council once were suspected of nepotism in doling out millions of dollars in discretionary funding.

``We all faced the same thing, so it's like, `Who is going to throw the first stone?''' Curley said.

A law firm hired as special prosecutors has cleared nearly 20 former and current delegates from wrongdoing in the discretionary fund investigation, including Tsosie and Curley. Naize is among 19 facing criminal charges or accused of ethics violations.

Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler, a former Tribal Council spokesman, said he would like to see Naize resolve the charges as did tribal President Ben Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee after they were elected to the posts. Shelly and Jim agreed to repay the money they were accused of stealing but without admitting guilt.

``If I was the speaker and having this hover over me, I would seriously consider finding a remedy to it,'' Butler said. ``I would also stand by the notion of innocent until proven guilty.''

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