The Payson Roundup reporting of events in the Tonto Apache Tribe leaves much to be desired. The picture painted is that of former chairperson Jeri Johnson-DeCola being the Joan of Arc who came to save the Tonto Apache Tribe but was condemned to cruel and unusual punishment and treated unfairly. This is far from true. The Council did not remove her from vice-chairmanship but accepted her DUI-conviction based resignation. Contrary to Payson Roundup's sensationalism, Mrs. Johnson-DeCola concealed her conviction since November of 1998 until she was confronted in a Council meeting in October of 1999 and immediately resigned. A majority of the Council members made the proper decision to turn over the matter to the prosecutor, which apparently resulted in criminal charges, filed against her. Mrs. Johnson-DeCola was found guilty on all Cheats and Fraud and Fraud charges by an impartial jury.
The Tribe has criminal jurisdiction over members and non-member Native Americans. The court obviously could not limit jurors to only members of the Tribe. To make such a limitation the court would constructively divest itself of its criminal jurisdiction over non-member Native Americans as they can then object to a tribal member only jury. Mrs. Johnson-DeCola in our opinion had a fair and impartial jury by the very fact that they were not members of the Tribe.
Mrs. Johnson-DeCola's legal counsel attempted to say that his client was under no duty to tell the Council of her DUI conviction in a tribal government vehicle while holding elected office under oath. The court held that under these circumstances, there was a duty to disclose so that the Council can carry out their duties under the Tribal Constitution. The Tribal Constitution is clear on removal of Council members for alcohol-related convictions. The court ordered restitution obviously because Mrs. Johnson-DeCola was not entitled to hold office and receive payments from the Tribe while concealing her DUI conviction. As in any civilized part of the western hemisphere, criminals are not allowed to profit from their crimes.
The fines imposed were minimal because each count of Fraud carried a $4,000 maximum she was fined only one-fourth of that penalty. As for the Cheats and Fraud, the fines imposed were less than half of the maximum for each count. Like in any other jurisdiction, Mrs. Johnson-DeCola will be required to reimburse the reasonable Tribe prosecutorial fees and costs.
It is amazing that cheap sensationalism is practiced by our local newspaper bringing discredit and embarrassment to the entire Tonto Apache Tribe. We realize the Payson Roundup cared little about getting a balanced story; it only wanted to play upon the emotions of its readers and didn't want to let the facts get in the way.
Vivian L. Burdette, Chairperson
Ivan Smith, Vice-Chairman
Casilda Johnson, Council member
Calvin Johnson, Council member
David K. Davis, Council member
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The issues cited by the Council were addressed in a Roundup editorial, and not the initial news story. Reporter Mike Burkett did make several attempts to reach the Tribe for the initial story, but his calls were not returned.