- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - A former Navajo Nation lawmaker convicted in a scheme to divert nearly $34,000 in tribal funds to his children has been sentenced to three years in jail.

Mel Begay was taken into custody immediately following Tuesday’s hearing in Window Rock District Court. He pleaded with Judge Carol Perry to allow him to remain free until a planned appeal is decided or through the weekend to attend the college graduation of a daughter who testified in his criminal case.

Perry denied the oral request and said she would reconsider if it’s filed in writing.

In sentencing Begay, Perry said he abused his position of trust and authority as a Navajo leader. Begay was removed from his legislative seat after a jury found him guilty on 10 criminal counts earlier this year.

“The defendant has not acknowledged wrongdoing and does not take responsibility, nor has he shown remorse for his actions,” Perry wrote in her sentencing order.

Prosecutors hired by the tribe spent years investigating the Navajo Nation Council’s use of a now-defunct discretionary fund. They filed ethics and criminal cases against roughly two dozen former lawmakers.

Begay was the only one who went to trial, and his punishment is the toughest yet. Most other defendants resolved their cases through plea agreements.

In addition to jail time, Begay was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service and ordered to repay the money he was accused of taking from the tribal government, plus a $4,500 fine. Prosecutors had requested he pay $50,000 in fines.

Prosecutor Marc Lowry said the conviction and sentencing of Begay is a victory for all the honest, hard-working tribal employees.

“The entire Navajo Nation can rest assured that justice has been served in this case and that Mr. Begay has been held accountable for his misuse of the Navajo Nation funds,” he said in a statement.

Begay’s attorney, Jeffrey Rasmussen argued that jail time wasn’t appropriate for a non-violent crime and that a $17,000 fine was justified.

“We felt like use of jail time here is more the Anglo model,” he said. “Tribal systems generally don’t use that as their primary punishment, which is what this court did. That doesn’t really serve anybody.”

Begay addressed the court Tuesday, saying he forgives the prosecutors for their actions and asked for leniency while maintaining what he did wasn’t a crime.

“This situation has altered my life and continues to turn it upside down. … I don’t know how and why it has to go to this extreme to humiliate me,” he said, according to the Farmington Daily Times.

Court documents outlined several requests from Begay’s daughters for help with heating and utility bills, rental payments and car parts, sometimes posing as voters when they weren’t old enough to vote. The request also included funding for school trips that didn’t exist or that were greatly exaggerated, prosecutors said.

Begay and his children never disclosed their relationship.

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