Navajo lawmakers place council speaker on leave

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Navajo Nation lawmakers voted Friday to place their legislative leader on indefinite paid administrative leave rather than oust him after he was charged with bribery and conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege that Johnny Naize and other tribal officials engaged in a scheme to divert money to their families. Naize has denied wrongdoing.

Lawmakers met in a special session in Window Rock to consider legislation sponsored by Alton Joe Shepherd, whose attempt earlier this year to remove Naize from the speaker's post failed to get enough votes.

The lawmakers went into executive session to discuss what they deemed to be a personnel matter and emerged with amendments to Shepherd's legislation that some saw as a compromise.

Under the revisions, 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 had no immediate public comment on the vote but had urged his colleagues earlier Friday to remain united and not let his court case distract them from legislative business. 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. Shepherd said the case against Naize calls into question his integrity and tarnished the image of the council.

Naize suggested that prosecutors took advantage of Joe, who was not represented by an attorney in the case.

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