San Juan County Attorney Craig Halls says he had little to do with the criminal libel charge leveled last week against a Ute Indian leader.

But the alleged victim, the complaint and the judge who signed it say otherwise.Norman Begay, a member of the White Mesa Ute Tribal Council, was charged Dec. 7 in Blanding's Justice of the Peace Court with a class B misdemeanor count of conveying false or libelous material to a newspaper.

The charges accuse Begay of making false or libelous statements against Cleal Bradford, who was terminated as director of the White Mesa Ute Tribe in October.

It's unclear, however, who is making the charges.

On top of the complaint is Halls' name as the San Juan County attorney. Halls is also listed as the "undersigned complainant" swearing the charge under oath.

But the complaint was not signed by Halls. It was signed by Bradford.

Halls said he's not sure how Bradford got the county attorney's office complaint form.

"The thing shouldn't have come out of my office," said Halls, surmising that his secretary may have given Bradford the complaint form. "This (charge) is not being brought by the county."

Halls said he was aware of Bradford's problems with Begay but that he did not investigate the case.

Bradford, however, said Halls told him that he had the sheriff's office investigate the case and that there were grounds for a criminal charge.

"Halls prepared the paperwork for me to sign," Bradford said.

And the judge who accepted the complaint said it had been authorized by Halls.

"It went through (Halls) before it went to me," said Korrin Turley, Blanding justice of the peace. "There was a note attached to it (from Halls) for me to sign it and to pick a date for the arraignment."

Two prominent Salt Lake criminal law attorneys, who asked not to be identified, said the incident is highly irregular. If a prosecutor is listed as an "undersigned complainant," he or she must sign the complaint.

Begay's attorney, Cullen Battle, believes the complaint is an attempt by the county's power brokers to silence Begay, who has been leading the fight against a plan to haul radioactive tailings from Monticello to a uranium mill near the White Mesa Ute reservation, south of Blanding. County officials generally support the plan.

Battle said that shortly after Bradford's termination, a deputy sheriff went to Begay's home, read him his rights and questioned him regarding a press statement Begay released about the termination.

"Apparently, the county attorney believes it is a crime for an Indian to criticize a white man," Battle said.

As further evidence that the criminal prosecution is politically motivated, Battle noted that Begay was served a court summons at a meeting Tuesday in which a citizens advisory board was to make a crucial vote on the tailings plan. (See related story.)

Turley has scheduled an arraignment for Jan. 9, at which time Begay will enter a plea.

Bradford, who served as Blanding mayor when Halls was Blanding city attorney, said he is pursuing the charge because he wants to "set the record straight" about his leaving the tribe's employ. Contrary to what Begay says, Bradford says he was not fired but that he resigned and that it had nothing to do with the tailings debate. Also contrary to Begay's press release, Bradford says he did not discuss any financial payoffs to the tribe if it would support the tailings haul to the uranium mill.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Is law vague and overbroad?

A Salt Lake media attorney believes a Utah statute making libel or false information a criminal offense is antiquated and probably unconstitutional.

"Criminal libel prosecutions are almost unheard of in America," said Jeff Hunt, an attorney for the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Hunt, a former newspaper reporter, was asked by the Deseret News to review the Utah statute in light of a libel charge leveled last week against a Ute Indian leader in San Juan County.

Criminal cases involving speech were common in Colonial times, Hunt said. "The founders of our country decided that wasn't a very good idea so they came up with something called the First Amendment."

Utah's statute on criminal libel is vague and overbroad, Hunt said.

"The statute is unconstitutional on its face," he said, noting that under the statute, a person could go to jail for giving an incorrect address or spelling to a newspaper.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public officials can collect damages only after proving that the speaker or writer showed malice and a reckless disregard for the truth, Hunt said.