A Ute tribal leader and other defendents have pleaded not guilty to charges that he interfered in the tribe's March 14 primary election.
Business committee member Stewart Pike and co-defendants Winnifred Cuch, Mary Jenkins, Rozella Yazzie, Joann Wash and Julius Murray appeared for arraignment Thursday before tribal court judge Leon Perank and entered pleas to charges of tampering with evidence and destruction of public records.Cuch, Jenkins, Yazzie and Wash are all members of the tribe's election board. Murray served as their legal advocate in an earlier court case.
A criminal complaint filed last week by tribal member Madeline Martinez and business committee nominees Wayne Perank, Tibbs Ridley and Clarice Ignacio say that the six defendants "opened primary election boxes and did alter evidence with knowledge that said evidence would be subject to future lawsuit."
On April 1, the tribal court ruled the primary election unconstitutional because voters were required to sign their ballots, negating the secret ballot process. Judge Perank ordered the entire election to be held again and disbanded the four-member election board. In addition to the constitutional problems, the court found "possible conspiracy" and said ineligible voters were allowed to cast ballots in the primary election.
Salt Lake City attorney Wallace Boyack said his six clients are denying all allegations. "We anticipate filing several motions prior to trial. Our defense is that anything that was done was done in the scope of official duties."
He said it's unknown if the tribal court can even try Pike because of his position on the business committee. "There's a difference of opinion over whether or not members of the business committee are immune from prosecution in tribal court. Right now, it's been alleged that Mr. Pike is involved in the election tampering although we don't know how," said Boyack.
Judge Perank required a $200 bond from each of the defendants before allowing them to leave court following their arraignment. The charges are misdemeanors in tribal court and carry a maximum penalty of three months in jail and a $200 fine. A trial date has been set for May 23.
Three of the six business committee seats are on the ballot. Pike's seat is not up for election.