The $185,950 from the Navajo Nation Council discretionary fund was intended to help tribal members in need. In the past, money from that fund has been used to help individuals and families offset hardship caused by deaths, injuries and other unforeseen circumstances.
Now former and current Navajo Nation Council delegates, including two speakers, are charged with diverting that amount of money to enrich their own lifestyles -- for vehicle repairs, car payments, household expenses, school tuition, cell phone bills, home improvement materials and computers.
Specifics listed included a "safety vest for calf riding and steer riding and football cleats."
The charges were outlined in criminal complaints the tribe's special prosecutors filed last week in Window Rock District Court.
The complaints describe what appears to be a deliberate and unethical scheme hatched among at least four council officials to circumvent tribal laws. Because the law states that delegates cannot appropriate the money for family members or business associates, these tribal leaders apparently agreed to authorize discretionary fund payouts for each other. The recipient would repay the graft in the exact amount to another.
If the charges are true, this is contemptible behavior -- literally stealing food from poor and needy people.
And it appears that it might be a widespread practice among the delegates.
Former special prosecutor Alan Balaran uncovered evidence allegedly showing that delegates on the former 88-member council used discretionary funds to benefit family members. Balaran filed criminal charges against 77 of those delegates in 2010. Balaran's contract was not renewed.
The council was subsequently slimmed to 24 delegates -- 16 of whom were among those charged.
A year later, the Special Division of Window Rock District Court hired the current special prosecutors, who have filed charges against former and current delegates, tribal officials and Legislative Branch personnel.
The four named in the current complaint are Speaker Johnny Naize, who was charged with 10 counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy; and former speaker Lawrence T. Morgan and former delegates George Arthur and Lena Manheimer who were each charged with six counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy.
It's easy to understand how people watching politicians in Window Rock -- or Washington, D.C., for that matter -- get so acclimated to corrupt behavior that they no longer expect their elected representatives to act like decent human beings. Unfortunately that response leads to apathy, a condition that only ensures more of the same.
We insist that these elected representatives be held to a higher standard. We hope these cases will be aggressively prosecuted. And if the accused are found guilty, we hope they face appropriate consequences -- not just slaps on the wrist.
This isn't only about holding people responsible for their actions. That higher standard exists because these representatives are supposed to be working for the good of the people who elected them. Weeding out the corrupt opens up the possibility that good people will fill those spots. That is the antidote for apathy.