FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The head of the Navajo Nation's legislative branch resigned Monday, a day ahead of a hearing in which he is expected to plead guilty in a criminal case accusing him of funneling tens of thousands of dollars to his family.
Johnny Naize's resignation brings to an end his nearly four years as speaker of the Navajo Nation Council and 16 years as a tribal lawmaker. The council already had stripped Naize of his administrative duties after he was charged with bribery and conspiracy in an investigation into the use of tribal funds.
Naize maintained he was innocent and predicted he would be exonerated at trial. But his attorney, Troy Eid, said Monday that Naize wanted to accept responsibility as a leader to restore harmony and balance to the Navajo people.
Naize wrote in his resignation letter that he was leaving the council "as a result of circumstances beyond my control" and because he respected the dignity of the office.
Naize is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to a single count of conspiracy to commit bribery as part of an agreement with prosecutors, Eid said. It's the same charge other former tribal lawmakers have pleaded to in resolving their own criminal cases. Specifics of the agreement weren't available.
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.
Naize would have been removed from the council had he pleaded guilty in the case and not resigned, said tribal elections director Edison Wauneka.
The council will have to choose from among its membership to replace Naize as speaker. LoRenzo Bates has been filling in as speaker pro tem since Naize was placed on paid administrative leave in April.
The Arizona communities that Naize represents on the council each have 45 days to recommend his replacement, with the speaker or speaker pro tem appointing someone to fill out the term that ends in January.