- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) - The trial for a Navajo Nation lawmaker charged with misusing tribal funds was delayed when not enough potential jurors showed up in court Monday.

Mel Begay’s trial is the first of two in criminal cases filed against 16 former and current lawmakers in an investigation of a discretionary fund meant for Navajos facing extreme hardship. Plea agreements have been reached in the other cases.

The tribal court in Window Rock sent out 200 letters to prospective jurors from Navajo communities within a 60-mile radius and summoned about 80 to court Monday, judicial officials said. Many did not show up, and some were excused, leaving 13. Judge Carol Perry said at least 14 were needed to move forward.

The 13 were told to return Tuesday or risk being held in contempt of court. Perry said the court would reach out by phone to other potential jurors.

Jury trials are rare on the Navajo Nation, and forming a jury pool is complicated by the lack of education on civic duties, a rural addressing system, reliable transportation and people dedicated solely to serving court documents, former tribal Judge TJ Holgate said. In his 16 years on the bench, he oversaw a handful of jury trials, sometimes getting the minimum six people needed to hear a case without any alternates, he said.

“There’s a lot of factors that contribute to this issue,” he said.

The Navajo courts collectively have an annual caseload that has exceeded 50,000 and at times have not had any funding set aside for jury trials. A 2011 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that eight trials were held on the reservation since 2007. The tribe’s annual report for fiscal year 2014 noted that the Chinle District Court held its first civil jury trial in years - “a learning experience for the court staff.”

Begay’s attorney, Jeffrey Rasmussen, said he was doubtful the Window Rock District Court would be able to get enough jurors for Begay’s trial, while prosecutors said they were confident the trial will resume this week.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen asked the tribe’s Supreme Court to halt the trial until it can rule on pending motions to dismiss Perry or the case in its entirety. Rasmussen has questioned Perry’s ability to be impartial, the statute of limitations and the scope of the prosecutors’ authority.

Begay has maintained he is innocent and will be cleared of the 10 criminal charges of conspiracy and submitting or permitting a false voucher. He faces the loss of his legislative seat, jail time and fines if convicted following the two-week trial.

“I intend to defend myself to the fullest extent of the law against these unwarranted charges,” he said in a statement last week.

A criminal complaint charging conspiracy accuses Begay of approving $33,750 in dozens of payments to his six children from 2006 to 2010. The nine false-voucher charges account $5,500 of that total.

Tribal law prohibits nepotism, and prosecutors say Begay and his children never disclosed their relationship.

Court documents outline several requests from Begay’s daughters for help with heating and utility bills, rental payments and car parts, sometimes posing as voters from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. Prosecutors say the girls were minors at the time and weren’t responsible for those costs. The requests also exaggerated the cost of school trips by hundreds of dollars, prosecutors said.

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