FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation president’s chief legal counsel and daughter has been placed on administrative leave, weeks after she was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
The announcement regarding Karis Begaye came Tuesday after sharp criticism online and in Navajo communities about the handling of her employment status, particularly because of prior convictions for driving while intoxicated. Tribal President Russell Begaye initially said she apologized and remained on the job.
Tribal spokesman Mihio Manus wouldn’t say whether Karis Begaye is on paid or unpaid leave. But he said it’s indefinite while she enters rehabilitation.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety arrested Begaye last month after she ran into a semitrailer and a guardrail on Interstate 17 south of Flagstaff while driving a black SUV. She was booked into jail on suspicion of extreme driving while intoxicated, endangerment and criminal damage.
Begaye, 41, told authorities she had two glasses of wine before the crash, according to a statement of probable cause. Authorities noted that she had blood-shot eyes, slurred speech and several open containers in the vehicle.
Begaye was released from jail after less than 12 hours because no formal charges had been filed.
Begaye’s previous convictions resulted from arrests in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2002 and 2003, according to court records. In the earlier case, she told authorities she had one beer before rolling her vehicle at least once. In the latter case, she denied drinking.
She ultimately pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in both cases, and prosecutors dropped other charges against her, court records show.
She was ordered to complete a first-time offender program in the 2002 case but wasn’t successful, Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court spokeswoman Camille Baca said. In the 2003 case, she was sentenced to two days in jail but got credit for time served. She also received a year of unsupervised probation and was ordered to counseling.
Begaye responded to the latest case with a statement apologizing for being involved in an accident and saying the experience was eye-opening. She committed to leading a campaign against alcohol abuse.
Although consuming and selling alcohol on the reservation largely is prohibited, alcoholism remains one of the most pervasive social ills on the Navajo Nation. Tribal and federal authorities say a majority of crimes are tied to alcohol use, and most people know someone who has been impacted by its abuse.
That led some on social media to plead for compassion toward Begaye, while others sought accountability.
Lynette Willie, a former campaign manager for Russell Begaye, said she was shocked to see Karis Begaye driving a tribal vehicle in northwestern New Mexico weeks after the arrest.
Tribal policies call for suspension of driving privileges “while serious criminal traffic matters are being resolved.” Personnel policies call for automatic removal or suspension of tribal employees operating a tribal vehicle under the influence of alcohol.
It’s unclear whether those policies apply to political appointees like Begaye. Calls to the tribe’s personnel management and fleet management were referred to Manus, who did not immediately clarify.
“If it’s not going to apply to them, there’s a lack of leadership,” Willie said. “How can their employees have trust in what they do if it’s not applied equally?”
Some Navajo communities have discussed voting on resolutions calling for Begaye to be fired, or, alternatively, for her to resign.
Gerald Henderson, the vice president of the Sanostee community in New Mexico, said tribal leaders and their staff should set an example for Navajo people.
“I don’t know if it’s just going to be a slap on the hand, but, to me, it’s not fair,” he said.