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Charges against new Navajo president still pending

Incoming Navajo President Ben Shelly will be sworn into office Tuesday with criminal charges still hanging over his head, while a judge considers whether to dismiss them as part of a settlement agreement.

Shelly announced Monday that he and his vice president had reached settlements with a special prosecutor, in which they would repay the money they're accused of stealing from the tribal government in exchange for having criminal charges against them dropped.

A Window Rock judge approved the settlement regarding Rex Lee Jim, but a tribal judge in another district did not issue an immediate ruling in Shelly's case. Crownpoint, N.M., District Judge Irene Toledo instead asked for additional briefs on how the court would enforce the agreement, staff attorney Patrick Dooley said.

"There is no final decision from this court tonight," Dooley told The Associated Press.

Shelly pleaded not guilty to theft, conspiracy and fraud charges late last year and sought to have them dismissed before he succeeds Joe Shirley Jr. as tribal president. Shelly, a 16-year lawmaker, served as Shirley's vice president in his second term.

Jim, a tribal lawmaker, will take office clear of theft and conspiracy charges.

Shelly and 77 lawmakers were charged last October with offenses including abuse of office, fraud and theft in an investigation of the Tribal Council's discretionary spending. Special prosecutor Alan Balaran alleged that the defendants illegally received a combined $1.9 million in tribal funds.

Shelly said that he and Jim were doing "what we believe is honorable and the right thing to do" in settling the cases before they're sworn in as president and vice president.

A criminal complaint alleged that Shelly took $8,850 to benefit himself and his family. If Toledo approves the settlement, Shelly will repay all but $600 that he received for funeral expenses.

Dooley said Toledo would make a decision based on the additional briefs that are due Jan. 17.

Jim will repay $3,200 as part of his settlement agreement. Both would have $100 automatically deducted from each paycheck until the total amounts are paid, according to the settlements.

The parties agreed that the settlements would serve the best interest of justice, preserve the court's resources and allow Shelly and Jim to perform their duties as the top two leaders of the Navajo Nation unhindered by the charges.

"This repayment is not, and shall not be construed, as an admission of guilt or any liability whatsoever on the part of the defendant," the settlements say.

Shelly and Jim have pledged to help reform tribal laws regarding discretionary funding that led to sharp criticism of elected tribal officials. The legislative branch received $33 million in discretionary funding during fiscal years 2005-2009, the majority of which came as supplemental budget appropriations.

Shelly urged other lawmakers facing charges to settle their cases. Eleven of the 24 tribal lawmakers that take office Tuesday were charged in the probe.

The Tribal Council called for a special prosecutor last year to look into Shirley's relationship with two companies that had operated on the reservation. The Navajo attorney general accepted that request but also expanded the probe to include the council's use of discretionary funds, to the surprise of the council.

Shelly and Jim have agreed to lobby the incoming 24-member Tribal Council to enact reforms that Shelly and Balaran agree on, according to the settlements. Shelly said he would work to remove the "discretionary" element of the financial assistance program that's meant for elderly Navajos on fixed income, college students or other Navajos facing hardships.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court criticized the spending in a ruling last week and banned any further use of it until guidelines are established.

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