Updated Apr 5, 2014 - 8:53 am
Navajo lawmakers place council speaker on leave
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Navajo Nation lawmakers voted Friday to place their legislative leader on indefinite paid administrative leave rather than oust him, months after he was charged with bribery and conspiracy.
Prosecutors allege that Johnny Naize and other tribal officials engaged in a scheme to divert tribal funds to their families. Naize has denied wrongdoing.
Lawmakers met in a special session in Window Rock to consider legislation sponsored by Alton Joe Shepherd to remove Naize from the post he's held since 2011. The amendments to Shepherd's measure came as a compromise, some lawmakers said, because Naize's criminal case hasn't wrapped up in tribal court.
Under the revisions brought forth after the executive session, Naize will continue to draw the speaker's $55,000 annual salary and retain his position as a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation Council, but he will not oversee council sessions or legislative staff.
``We, again, want to see a different direction and this is one way to start,'' Shepherd said following the vote.
Naize questioned the legality of the council's action and said he would challenge it in tribal court.
Nothing in Navajo law speaks specifically to placing the speaker of the council on administrative leave, nor does it specify a vote requirement, attorneys for the legislative branch and the tribe's Department of Justice said. But Navajo law gives broad discretion to lawmakers to discipline council members, the attorneys said.
Removing a speaker from office requires a two-thirds vote of the 24-member council, or 16 votes. Lawmakers sought the advice of attorneys on what was required for administrative leave and passed the legislation by a simple majority vote, 12-0. Staunch supporters of Naize left the council chambers without voting.
Naize said the action, if allowed to stand, ``would make a mockery of our laws and legal process.
``I am confident the courts will protect our nation's institutions and laws from what amounts to an illegal overthrow of our government,'' he said.
An attempt earlier this year to unseat Naize as speaker failed to get enough votes to pass. Shepherd said his intent was to preserve the integrity of the speaker's post and the image of the Tribal Council.
He said he didn't exactly foresee a challenge, but ``with anything, we have to take it as it is.''
Naize's second, two-year term as speaker was set to expire in January. He has said he will not seek re-election to the Tribal Council after serving four terms.
The lawmakers chose LoRenzo Bates, head of the council's Budget and Finance Committee, as speaker pro-tem.
Prosecutors allege that Naize and several other current and former council delegates conspired to divert roughly $74,000 from a now-defunct discretionary fund to their families. The money was intended to assist elderly Navajos, people facing extreme hardship and students seeking financial aid. Criminal complaints allege that Naize's family received about $37,000 in exchange for his providing a nearly identical amount to members of other families in the years before he was elected speaker.
Some of the roughly 30 people who faced criminal charges or ethics violations in the investigation have settled their cases while others await trial. Some have pleaded guilty and agreed to aid prosecutors.
Shepherd renewed his legislative effort to remove Naize from the speaker's post after former lawmaker Raymond Joe pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and named Naize as a co-conspirator.
Naize suggested that prosecutors took advantage of Joe, who was not represented by an attorney in the case.
The council has not taken action against any of its members since the late 1980s when it ousted former Chairman Peter MacDonald because of a corruption scandal. The tribe later established a three-branch government.