In the wake of a court ruling reinstating a tribal member’s San Juan County Commission candidacy, Navajo Nation officials are pressuring the Utah attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute county officials in connection with their decision to boot Bears Ears activist Willie Grayeyes from the ballot.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer concluded that County Clerk John David Nielson improperly backdated an official complaint to support his finding that Grayeyes did not live in Utah despite the Navajo Democrat’s longtime voter-registration record in the Beehive State. For tribal representatives, the case is further proof that county officials have rigged the political system against Navajos.
Grayeyes is seen as a strong Navajo candidate for one of the county’s recently redrawn voting districts. His victory could upend San Juan’s long-standing political domination by conservative white Mormons.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch is accusing San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge of trampling on tribal sovereignty by sending a deputy onto the reservation to investigate whether Grayeyes was a Utah resident.
“I sent him a letter reminding him he does not have the authority to enter Navajo lands pursuant to our treaty,” Branch said on Native America Calling, a talk show dedicated to tribal issues. “We are able [to] block access to our reservation.”
In an interview, Eldredge rejected Branch’s characterization, arguing that federal statutes and case law enable his officers to enter the reservation. Deputy Colby Turk spent a day on the reservation back in March looking into an allegation that Grayeyes provided a false address on his candidacy declaration, which would constitute a class B misdemeanor, the sheriff said.
“If they commit a crime off reservation, we have the right to go on the reservation. Can we arrest the individual? No, that has to be done through the proper channels," Eldredge said. “It is no different than U.S. law enforcement going into a foreign county to investigate crimes that occurred here.”
Branch sent a letter asking Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to explore a criminal case against county officials.
“At a minimum, it appears the county clerk falsified governmental documents,” Branch said. “It’s potentially liable for abuse of office as well. The [Utah] attorney general can send a strong message that Navajo citizens’ rights mean just as much as any other citizens of the state.”
Branch did not respond to emails and phone messages, but, on Aug. 16, the Navajo Utah Commission passed a resolution calling on Reyes and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah’s top elections official, to prosecute Nielson and remove him from office
“We’ve heard the complaints and seen the depositions,” said Justin Lee, an elections official in Cox’s office. "We are having talks with the [Utah] attorney general to determine the best course of action.
Reyes’ office confirmed it received Branch’s letter but would not say whether an investigation is underway.
Grayeyes’ lawsuit against the county remains pending before Nuffer, who has instructed the county to submit a memo by Friday explaining why he should not issue a final ruling in Grayeyes’ favor. Meanwhile, his lawyers have filed a motion seeking $335,000 in legal costs, largely associated with the 835 hours Grayeyes’ legal team spent on the case through Aug. 7.
The lawyers, who were billing their time at $450 an hour, blamed the county for running up their costs. They complained the county and its lawyers “deliberately misled” them about the facts underlying Nielson’s decision to disqualify Grayeyes from running.
The judge ruled that the sheriff’s involvement showed the county was not acting as a neutral referee in a voter-eligibility challenge as required but rather as a prosecutor — violating Grayeyes' rights.
In his remarks to The Salt Lake Tribune, however, Eldredge said the deputy’s participation was appropriate and allowed under a cross-commission agreement, which he helped broker back in 2013 as way to improve public safety and response times to emergencies.
On March 23, Turk roamed Utah’s Navajo Mountain in search of a home on remote Paiute Mesa that Grayeyes listed as his residence. According to court filings, Grayeyes' family owns a home on Paiute Mesa, where he runs cattle and the family buried his umbilical cord. While struggling to figure out which home was the one Grayeyes listed, the deputy spoke with residents who said Grayeyes hadn’t lived there in awhile.
Turk’s dense five-page narrative concluded Grayeyes spends much of his time on the road, shuttling between a friend’s trailer in Tuba City, Ariz., and his sister’s home at Navajo Mountain.