Navajo court hears challenge in president's race

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Attorneys in a case centered on the Navajo Nation's presidential race sparred Thursday over whether a candidate meets a qualification to have unswerving loyalty to the tribe.

Onetime presidential hopeful Myron McLaughlin filed a grievance against Russell Begaye earlier this month in the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals, seeking to remove him from the race for the tribe's top elected post. It's the second challenge to a presidential candidate in this election season.

Begaye came in third in the tribe's presidential primary and replaced second-place finisher Chris Deschene, who was disqualified for failing to show he could speak fluent Navajo. A bid to resurrect a bill that would let Navajos decide which political candidates are fluent in the tribe's language failed Thursday in the Navajo Nation Council, ending any hope that Deschene had for jumping back into the race.

Begaye now is set to face Joe Shirley Jr. in the presidential contest tentatively set for Dec. 23.

The grievance against Begaye stems from his time as a shareholder representative for the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company. It alleges that he wrongfully received stipends for unduly called meetings and was given money unlawfully for legal representation at a time of chaos in the company. It also alleges that he would not have the tribe's best interest in mind because he was party to a lawsuit challenging a Navajo Nation Supreme Court decision in federal court. The tribe's high court had reinstated the company's CEO and five board members, and the federal lawsuit sought to overturn that decision.

McLaughlin's attorney, Brian Lewis, said Begaye's decision to join the lawsuit challenging the Navajo Nation Supreme Court clearly demonstrates that he doesn't have unswerving loyalty to the tribe. He sought repeatedly to get an attorney who represented the shareholders, Dennis Ickes, to agree on the witness stand. But Ickes wasn't biting.

"Isn't it true he should be disqualified because he cannot demonstrate loyalty?" Lewis asked Ickes.

"It's not disloyal to anybody to seek to enforce your rights," Ickes responded.

The allegations regarding financial improprieties haven't been argued. The hearing is scheduled to resume Friday.

Begaye's attorney, David Jordan, said none of the allegations would disqualify Begaye from the race for the tribe's top elected post. He said the shareholder representatives were advised by the tribe's Department of Justice to seek outside counsel and that Begaye attended meetings that he was asked to attend and deposited any stipends he received.

Jordan said he sees nothing wrong with seeking relief in federal court over decisions made on a federally chartered company. "We think this is a smear campaign that's hoping that maybe something will stick," he said.

The grievance seeks to have Begaye replaced by the fourth-place finisher from the tribe's primary election and an order keeping the Navajo Election Administration from placing Begaye's name on the ballot.

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