Gehrke: The old boys network in San Juan County isn’t going to give up power without a fight

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at what we are witnessing playing out in San Juan County. After all, when the deck has been so heavily stacked in your favor for generations, it would have to be hard to give that up without a fight.

And fighting is what they’re doing, tooth and nail, to oust a democratically elected commissioner, to undo a historic election and to make sure the Navajo population — which outnumbers the whites — are denied equal representation in their government.

The lengths they are going to are extraordinary.

Last summer, we saw the county clerk, John David Nielson, conspire with Wendy Black — a former candidate for the county commission — to falsify a complaint against Democratic candidate Willie Grayeyes and to challenge his residency and eligibility to run.

It took a federal judge to undo the unethical — and possibly illegal — actions and to restore Grayeyes to the ballot and voters elected him by a nine-point margin.

Now the Republican he beat, Kelly Laws, is resurrecting the residency claims in a lawsuit filed in state court. Laws has also filed a petition with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office asking for an investigation.

If Laws prevails, a judge could undo the election, disqualify Grayeyes, declare the seat vacant and potentially even name Laws — who received the second-highest number of votes — the winner, according to Justin Lee, director of the state elections office.

By the way, the sheriff’s deputy who investigated Grayeyes residency said in his deposition that, while Grayeyes “resides all over the place,” his conclusion was that “his home is Piute Mesa, Navajo Mountain,” which is in San Juan County.

As those antics unfold, in the background is the county’s challenge to a federal court ruling that the commission boundaries that had been in place in San Juan County for years unfairly disenfranchised Navajo voters and ordered the districts redrawn. A ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals should come in late spring or early summer.

And here’s a little behind-the-scenes game you probably haven’t heard about.

After Nielson kicked Grayeyes off the ballot — and before the court ordered him reinstated — the San Juan County attorney, Kendall Laws, thought Grayeyes could face criminal charges for supposedly misrepresenting where he lived when he filed for office.

Kendall Laws, as you may have guessed, is the son of Kelly Laws, the one suing to overturn Grayeyes election. So Kendall Laws sent the case against his dad’s opponent to be reviewed by another county attorney for possible criminal charges.

He probably didn’t expect what happened next.

The case went to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, whose prosecutors agreed Grayeyes hadn’t broken the law. But, Rawlings told me, they did want to look further at “issues involving the conduct of other individuals in how the case against Grayeyes was brought forward.” Translation: Nielson and possibly Black were in trouble.

Without telling Rawlings, Laws “un-referred” the matter and sent it to Grand County, Rawlings said. I tried to reach Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald about the case and he didn’t return a call. He retired at the end of last year but his replacement, Christina Sloan, who was sworn in last week, said he closed the case before leaving office.

Sloan said she plans to review the file. Rawlings also said he plans to find out what Grand County reviewed and whether the case still should be reviewed.

But all of this shows what Navajo voters are up against as they simply try to get a fair shake in county government.

They’re up against a county attorney who will use his power to try to prosecute his father’s political opponent.

They’re up against a county clerk who will blatantly and knowingly attest to fraudulent election complaints.

They’re up against a county commission that will spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on legal fees to defend racially discriminatory commission boundaries.

And they’re up against political opponents who will try to use the courts to oust a democratically elected commissioner.

Here’s the good news from the historic San Juan County election in November: Even if it is long, long overdue and even if it means fighting for every inch of progress against an entrenched power structure, change will eventually come to San Juan County.