As Jeri Johnson-DeCola prepares to appeal the 59 fraud convictions which resulted from the Tonto Apache's first-ever jury trial, the once-influential, former tribal councilmember has been cleared by the tribal court of a more recent charge: contempt of court.
"I was praying and believing the charge would be dropped," Johnson-DeCola said after last week's hearing, "so I am very happy that things worked out the way they did."
The original purpose of the court hearing was to determine the exact amount of prosecutorial and jury fees she would be expected to pay in addition to $55,000 in fines and $8,762 in restitution which were ordered by tribal court judge Tao Eptison three weeks ago. A preliminary estimate of those fees had been put in the area of $38,000.
That issue was left unresolved, however, as prosecutor Orville Burshia failed to produce billing records per Eptison's request. It was decided that, when Burshia collects the pertinent invoices, he and Johnson-DeCola's legal representative, Richard Dugger will meet in chambers with Eptison to determine the final amount.
The focus of the hearing then moved to the charge of contempt of court, which sprang from an April 29 letter Johnson sent to one of her spiritual mentors, Pastor Mike Welch of Enid, Okla. but which was obtained by a third party and faxed to the tribal offices.
The letter a request for prayers and support that included Johnson-DeCola's views on the way her case has been handled by the tribal court became the basis for the contempt charge, as tribal code "prohibits any act that would embarrass or undermine the authority of the court," Eptison said.
Johnson-DeCola's new legal counsel, John Checkett, argued that the letter contained information as privileged as any that might be exchanged between a doctor and patient or a lawyer and his client, and that it was protected by the freedoms of speech and religion.
Eptison agreed and, after an hour of debate, the charge was dropped.
The decision represented Johnson-DeCola's sole courtroom victory since she was found guilty of 59 counts of fraud last month charges which evolved from a 1998 DUI conviction she received in the Valley. Because she was a tribal councilmember at the time, and failed to report the conviction to the council, the jury of non-Tonto Apache Native Americans agreed with prosecutors that Johnson-DeCola would have been removed from office if the council had known about the DUI and that she therefore committed fraud each time she cashed a Tonto Apache payroll check.
Checkett said that he first plans to take the case to the Indian Southwest Court of Appeals in Albuquerque and then, depending on that outcome, to state and federal courts.
"This will be handled just like a regular criminal appeal," Checkett said. "If you exhaust all of your tribal system and state-court remedies, you still have the ability to apply to federal court ... While the tribal courts have their own law and law codes, they do recognize the federal rules of procedure."