WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — At least 77 current delegates to the 88-member Navajo Nation Tribal Council are charged with offenses including theft and fraud in the use of tribal funds. So when the lawmakers convened the last day of their fall session with customary prayer, the ritual quickly deepened into a quest for protection and purification.
Delegate Willie Tracey dipped an eagle feather in water and sprinkled it on the other lawmakers, who patted the drops on themselves in a gesture of absolution. One by one, they lined up and sipped more ceremonial water from a small wooden cup in the council chambers where colorful murals depict the tribe's history.
"Some will say that behavior of leaders needs to be corrected. People will see things like this have gone too far on our people and it need not be," said council Delegate Thomas Walker of the broad allegations. But he also held out this caveat, "(Some) people will perceive this as political persecution."
The lawmakers have faced heavy scrutiny since it was revealed last week that the majority of them have been charged in tribal court with any of five offenses — conspiracy, theft, abuse of office, forgery and fraud — in an investigation of how they spent discretionary funds intended for Navajos in need. The allegations say the money was used by some lawmakers on the nation's largest and deeply-impoverished Indian reservation to benefit themselves and their families.
The Tribal Council debates and makes decisions inside its historic, hogan-shaped chambers. Here, the council voted to give itself $31 million in discretionary funding during fiscal years 2005-2009, according to the tribe's budget office. Another $2.1 million was already budgeted.
The more than 270 criminal complaints released Wednesday in Window Rock charge lawmakers and two others with illegally taking nearly $1.9 million, according to court officials and a list published by the Navajo Times newspaper.
In some years, each delegate received several thousand dollars to distribute. Tribal policy prohibits lawmakers from engaging in conflicts of interest, particularly nepotism, in doling out the money.
This money is at the root of the charges against the tribal legislators, and they unwittingly initiated the investigation themselves.
A year ago, the council asked the tribe's attorney general to hire a special prosecutor to look into allegations that the tribal president, Joe Shirley Jr., had acted illegally and unethically in dealing with a satellite Internet company and a separate manufacturing business operating on the reservation.
The attorney general obliged, but then shocked council members by expanding the probe to include their use of the discretionary funds.
While special prosecutors have investigated a tribal chairman and past presidents, this is the first time an inquiry has targeted the council.
The special prosecutor law was enacted in response to the political turmoil involving former president Peter MacDonald, who survived a presidential primary even after the council suspended him from office in the face of corruption charges in 1989.
The complaints contend that lawmakers make too much money, an estimated $65,000 a year, to qualify for discretionary funds for themselves or their families. Guidelines say the funding should properly go to elderly Navajos on fixed incomes, college students, organizations in need or Navajos in emergency situations.
Many homes on the vast 27,000 square-mile reservation that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are without electricity and running water. Mobile phone service is spotty, and the unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent.
Tribal leaders often impress upon Navajos that they have an obligation to help family and neighbors who are in need, whether it be driving them to the polls, gathering firewood for winter, hauling water or delivering food.
Outside the council chambers last week, Delegate Ernest Yazzie defended the use of discretionary funds, saying, "It's our own people doing for their own people. What's wrong? At least us, we help the people."
Some say the charges filed by special prosecutor Alan Balaran in the latest probe are nothing but a ploy to defeat lawmakers seeking re-election on Nov. 2. More than half of the 48 candidates hoping for a seat on a reduced 24-member Tribal Council — the result of an election last year aimed at reforming the government — are incumbents.
"Nobody has imposed a deadline on him (Balaran), he's not trying to beat some statute of limitations," said David Jordan, an attorney representing one of the defendants. "There's only one date coming up that can possibly be the reason for the rush, and that's the election."
Balaran, a Washington lawyer who formerly investigated the destruction of documents in a multibillion lawsuit on behalf of American Indians who claimed the government mismanaged trust funds, declined to comment.
In the complaints, Balaran alleges that lawmakers lied on official documents to assert a hardship or emergency and other lawmakers "mysteriously" overlooked that point in issuing sometimes dozens of checks to their council colleagues and immediate family.
Joe Sandoval, a tribal member who was observing last week's final council session, said he doesn't see much action from the council in trying to restore balance, harmony and respect — the goal of many traditional prayers.
"What the council has done in the past has caught up with them," said Sandoval, of Whitehorse Lake, N.M., "and now it's firing back with all the fun with the money."
Elouise Brown, a Navajo environmental activist, said any lawmaker who can justify the payments outlined in the complaints should do so. She said she still supports tribal presidential candidate Ben Shelly, who faces charges of conspiracy, fraud and theft, because the former lawmaker was forthcoming about the charges and has explained his use of the money.
"That's the whole reason I believe in him — that what he's telling is the truth," Brown said.
According to the Navajo Times, the lawmakers are accused of individually taking from $650 to $279,175. Other charges reach beyond the council to more than three dozen non-lawmakers, said Samson Cowboy, director of public safety for the tribe.
Duane "Chili" Yazzie, a former elected official who has benefited from discretionary funds, said tribal officials often face intense pressure to give money to constituents. There's a lot of good intent, he says, but few checks and balances mean "there's bound to be abuse."