Housing nonprofit workers face 230 charges

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Feb. 26, 2009

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T wo former employees of a defunct Many Farms, Ariz., public-housing management company are facing 230 criminal complaints related to embezzlement, but as of Tuesday they had not been arrested or named by authorities.

Frank Brown, a senior investigator with the Navajo Nation White Collar Crime Unit, said Monday that charges of theft, forgery, fraud, conspiracy and abuse of office were filed with the Chinle District Court on Feb. 19.

Brown said the charges result from a yearlong special joint investigation of the nonprofit West Mesa Housing Management Corp. by the White Collar Crime Unit and Final Notice Investigative Services Group, a private business in Albuquerque.

A January 2008 audit by Navajo Housing Authority uncovered a "substantial" amount of missing money and other financial discrepancies there, sparking the investigation, Brown said.

West Mesa had managed the Many Farms housing under a federal grant from the NHA since 1999. It was responsible for collecting rent and mortgage payments, and for performing landlord duties such as maintenance on rental units.

The nonprofit went out of business in September 2007 when the executive director, Leroy Mitchell, and an assistant walked off the job without notice to NHA, other West Mesa employees, or residents of the units it managed. Mitchell, who suffered from chronic ill health, died in December 2007.

The West Mesa office never reopened and NHA eventually transferred its clients to the Chinle Housing Management Office, another nonprofit under contract with NHA.

Aneva Yazzie, NHA executive director, was unavailable for comment and staff members said she is on business travel all week.

On Tuesday, Marlene Lynch, NHA's chief financial officer who was delegated in Yazzie's absence, said she could not comment on the complaints but she did confirm that West Mesa is defunct.

Lynch said the nonprofit had been receiving an average of $110,000 in federal housing management funds to oversee 16 rental units and about 85 homeownership units in Many Farms.

Brown explained that the names of the suspects could not be released until they are served with the complaints, which could only happen after the Chinle court processes the complaints.

But because of the high number of charges in the complaint - the largest number ever filed in a single action on the Navajo Nation - the Chinle court has taken longer than usual to process the paperwork, Brown said.

Prior to the West Mesa case, the largest number of charges in a single case brought in tribal court was 111, when then Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. was accused of bribery, fraud, conspiracy and elections violations on Oct. 12, 1989.

The audit of West Mesa finances took about two years to complete and was prompted by complaints from some West Mesa employees, Lynch said. After the audit revealed bookkeeping "irregularities," NHA hired an independent investigator.

"We were very concerned about the cash mismanagement by West Mesa," Lynch said, adding that she could not discuss the amount of money missing or other specifics in the criminal complaints.

Acting Chief Prosecutor Roger Shirley stated in a Feb. 20 press release that Tóhajiilee District senior prosecutor Vernon Roanhorse and Tóhajiilee District juvenile presenting officer Rodriguez Morris filed the complaints.

Window Rock District supervising prosecutor Ella Morris is also part of the team, Brown said.

The investigation leading to the 230 criminal charges involved a "huge" amount of interviews, which would be used to substantiate the criminal allegations in court, he said.

Once the Chinle court completes its work, the defendants will be served with the charges and possibly an arrest warrant.

He added that if federal prosecutors get involved - which could happen since the case involves federal housing funds - then the court would also issue extradition papers, which require a presidential signature and a preliminary hearing by the Chinle court before the suspects are released into federal custody.

Aneva Yazzie replaced Chester Carl, who was forced to resign Oct. 24, 2006, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suspended him for accepting thousands of dollars in cash, services and gratuities from William H. Aubrey, a builder who was involved in the 2005 collapse of another nonprofit under contract to NHA.

Aubrey had obtained millions of dollars worth of contracts from the nonprofit Fort Defiance Housing Corp., and when he defaulted on several projects, FDHC was forced into bankruptcy.

In an interview given seven months before the West Mesa nonprofit went belly up, Yazzie said that under her tenure, NHA would pay close attention to the performance of housing providers, contractors and subcontractors.

She also said she would have her staff educate communities on the process that NHA uses regarding housing providers, contractors and subcontractors.

"I really want to make a difference," Yazzie said at the time.

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