Take it or Leave it: ‘Laws v Grayeyes’ (The war grinds on in San Juan County)…by Jim Stiles

“It’s our stuff. We made it and we know best how to use it and care for it. And now we’re going to get it back.”

John Pretty Man, Crow Indian

“The entire corner of Utah is a stronghold of rugged Mormon individualism–than which there is nothing ruggeder— and all that its stubborn inhabitants ask is to be let alone so they can take care of themselves.”

David Lavender. from “One Man’s West” 1943

The drama and turmoil that continues to play out in San Juan County, Utah seems to have no end to it. It is a clash of cultures, of political maneuvering by all parties, much of which has been heavily publicized in the media and some of it extremely well concealed. All sides have hidden agendas on the one hand, and honest quests for fairness and equality on the other. It has brought out the very best in some people and the very worst in others.

The election last November was supposed to finally put some of this to rest. Many didn’t like the outcome and are still angry. Some think the election was “stolen.”

Reading this, you might think I’m referring to Donald Trump and his electoral victory. Many on the Left think Trump used trickery and collusion and deception to win in 2016. They still refuse to accept the outcome, consider him an “illegitimate” president, and are doing everything in their power to reverse the events of January 20, 2017 when Trump was inaugurated.

In San Juan County, the same Conservatives who support Trump and who believe assaults on his presidency are unjust are essentially pursuing the same strategy against the newly elected County Commission. They will do whatever it takes to reverse the election and remove Willie Grayeyes. I can see no difference between the tactics employed by Democrats to remove a Republican president and Republicans who want to remove a Democrat commissioner. Both groups, certain that an election has been corrupted, are inspired by their honest convictions. They are doing what they believe is right and in the public interest.

But, despite their good faith efforts, they aren’t helping matters. Their convictions are keeping them from dealing with reality, as it stands. And encouraging greater division. Everyone knows his side is right. No one thinks they’re in the wrong. Everything is black and white. And I see no end in sight, anywhere.

The newly elected County Commissioners. Grayeyes is second from the Right. Photo c/o Jami Bayles.

For those of you not familiar with the latest episode of “As San Juan County Turns,” Here is a brief summary:

In March 2016, Navajo Willie Grayeyes filed as a candidate for San Juan County Commission. The recently redrawn district boundaries, by federal order, gave Native Americans a distinct demographic advantage in future elections and presented the possibility of a county commission controlled by Navajos. But within hours of the deadline, a candidate complaint was filed by another resident, Wendy Black, claiming that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident. Grayeyes was subsequently taken off the ballot.

In August, a federal judge threw out the complaint, saying the process by which the complaint was filed was flawed and possibly illegal. Grayeyes was reinstated. Questions about Grayeyes’ residency were deferred.

In November, Grayeyes was elected and in January he was sworn in. On the same day, he was served legal notice that a lawsuit had been filed by his opponent, Kelly Laws. Laws claimed that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident and that the election should be declared null and void. Testimony was presented at a hearing on January 22 in the Seventh District Court of Utah.

On January 29, Judge Brian Torgerson issued a finding in favor of Grayeyes…so here we are

* * *

Having been recently attacked by Liberals for being a “parrot” and “throwing red meat” to the Alt-Right and attacked by Conservatives for “giving ammunition” and “comfort” to Liberals, I’m probably in a no-win situation here. All I can say is that I offer these views as candidly and transparently as I know how, without regard to any ideology that either side may think I pander to. When it comes to those kinds of hysterical and unkind accusations, all I can do is quote my favorite cowboy, Monte Walsh, who once famously said, “You have no idea how little I care.”

But I do care about trying to be honest. That’s all I’m trying to do here.

So, with regard to the lawsuit brought by defeated candidate Kelly Laws against Willie Grayeyes, the certified winner of the election, I perused the articles, thumbed through the testimony, and read Judge Torgersons’s decision. I am not a legal scholar nor inclined in that direction. I can only go with what my gut tells me. And my heart. This is purely a layman’s perspective. I came away with mixed feelings and a conflicted conclusion.

On the one hand…

Attorney Stirba, Right, with another of his clients, now Utah Rep. Phil Lyman

The attorney for Kelly Laws, Peter Stirba, introduced evidence that showed Grayeyes did not have a Utah drivers license—his license is from Arizona. Stirba produced documents to show that Grayeyes owned a residence in Page, Arizona and paid taxes on that property. He introduced witnesses who swore that the Utah structure Grayeyes first claimed as his residence was abandoned and un-livable.

Stirba called Delton Pugh as a witness. Pugh is the Aging and Adult Services Case Manager for San Juan County and testified that, in his years working in the area of Paiute Mesa, he had never seen Grayeyes and that the house Grayeyes now claimed as his residence was in fact occupied by a man named Harrison Ross.

Stirba called San Juan County Deputy Colby Turk as a witness. Turk had interviewed witnesses in March 2018, regarding Grayeyes, after Wendy Black filed her complaint. But Judge Torgerson ruled that the body cam video of those witnesses was inadmissible because Turk did not have the authority to conduct a civil investigation on sovereign Navajo lands without permission. The footage of Grayeyes himself was allowed.

Another witness, Brad Bunker, is a land surveyor who noted that the GPS coordinates provided by Grayeyes matched “within 200 feet” the structure first identified as his residence.

So…the attorney for Laws showed that Grayeyes did not possess a Utah drivers license, though state law requires its citizens to have one. He showed that Grayeyes owned property in Page, Arizona and that few of the people interviewed had ever seen Grayeyes at either of the structures he claimed was his residence.

Then Steven Boos, the attorney for Grayeyes, produced several witnesses in support of his claims as a Utah resident. Lena Fowler is the 5th district representative for Coconino County. She was the first to discuss the Navajo belief that the burial location of an infant’s umbilical cord designates forever that person’s residency. Consequently, Fowler insisted that Grayeyes is a permanent resident of Utah.

Commissioner Grayeyes, c/o The San Juan Record.

Another witness for the defense, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison, also believed that the burial location of an umbilical cord designates that person’s permanent home.

Former President of the Navajo Nation, Peterson Zah, supported the views of Fowler and Dennison. Zah said he had visited Grayeyes at his home on Paiute Mesa after giving a speech to students at Navajo Mountain School five years ago.

* * *

When I started to research residency requirements in San Juan County, I was surprised to learn that to become a registered voter, one only needed to prove residency at a specific address 30 days prior to election day and that even a utility bill would provide enough proof. But I wrongly assumed that the standard was the same for candidates. Later I located the filing application for elected office; in it, the candidate agrees that he/she has been “at least one year a resident of the county immediately before the date of the election.”

Laws’ argument was that Grayeyes failed to meet the requirement.

Further, cultural considerations like the burial of an umbilical cord as a means of establishing a candidate’s residency seemed like a violation of the separation of Church and State, especially in an election where its constituents share a diverse collection of religious and cultural beliefs.

For example, imagine that the Republican candidate Kelly Laws had won the election, instead of Democrat Willie Grayeyes. And imagine that, subsequently, some of the Democrats find convincing physical evidence that Laws actually lives in Colorado.

Laws hypothetically replies that since he was baptized in the LDS Temple in Monticello, and because his ancestors were part of the original Hole in the Rock expedition almost 140 years ago, he feels like San Juan County is his true place of residence.

Would Democrats support that explanation or reject it?

As for the lack of a Utah drivers license, Grayeyes’ argument was that the great distances required to travel to the nearest Utah licensing office were excessive and even prohibitive. It was more convenient to obtain an Arizona license and many other residents of Paiute Mesa have acted similarly. For the average citizen, that sounds fair enough.

But it’s a reasonable expectation that a candidate running for public office should have a self-imposed higher standard to meet. If Grayeyes is willing to make multiple visits to San Juan County’s seat of government in Monticello, to serve as the county’s elected representative, couldn’t he have made the trip just once to secure a drivers license in the state where he claims to live? It represents a sacrifice of a day, every five years.

On the other hand…

It’s important to remember that the burden of proof in a lawsuit like this lies with the accuser, in this case Kelly Laws.

Much of the debate about drivers licenses has focused on the notion that a candidate is required to have a Utah drivers license, but that’s not accurate. The law, “requires a resident to have a valid Utah driver license, when driving in Utah. A person is considered a Utah resident if the person establishes a domicile here, remains here longer than six months, engages in other than seasonal employment; or obtains Utah privileges not ordinarily afforded nonresidents…”

But does not having a license disqualify that person as a resident? Or does it mean that the resident is in violation of the law for failing to obtain a license? The difference in interpretation is important.

More importantly and what I think proved to be critical for the judge was, if Willie Grayeyes doesn’t live on Paiute Mesa, then where does he live? The burden of proof again falls on the accuser. It seems clear from the testimony that Grayeyes does not reside in a trailer in Page, Arizona; the fact that he owns property and pays taxes there is irrelevant in this case. Many people own property in states where they don’t reside.

Could anyone prove beyond a doubt that Grayeyes does not spend a lot of his time sleeping at his sister’s shade hut or daughter’s cabin? It was assumed by many but proven by no one.

This is what Judge Torgerson had to say in his ruling

Judge Torgerson

Where the person usually sleeps: The Court considers this factor to be significant. The evidence produced at trial was not credibly refuted by Petitioner. According to the testimony, Grayeyes spends approximately 60%-80% of his time on Navajo Mountain. He often stays with his sister, Rose, and at his daughter April’s cabin. He also spends time with a girlfriend in Tuba City, AZ and he spends a lot of his time traveling. It is apparent that Grayeyes spends more time at Navajo Mountain than he does anywhere else.

No one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the testimony Judge Torgerson accepted as fact was untrue.

* * *

And finally, what is known and certain and provable is that Willie Grayeyes has voted regularly in Utah elections since 1984. For thirty-four years and eighteen general elections, Grayeyes has been deemed eligible to vote. Not once, until March 2018, did anyone ever challenge that right.

This isn’t even Grayeyes’ first run for public office. In 2012, Grayeyes was the Democratic commissioner candidate in San Juan County. He ultimately lost, and at no time did anyone challenge his candidacy. But that was probably because it was almost impossible for him to win. In 2012 only 30% of the residents of his district were Navajo. Bruce Adams, the incumbent, won handily.

Official Results of the 2012 election

Grayeyes’ Utah residency was only called into question when it became apparent he was almost sure to win the 2018 election. The federally mandated redistricting a year earlier almost guaranteed it. After the districts were redrawn, the percentage of Navajos in Grayeyes’ district jumped to 65.6%.

Again, from the Court:

Kelly Laws, c/o the San Juan Record

Laws never challenged Grayeyes’s voter eligibility nor his voter registration according to the required statutory process. Instead, he waited until after the election to challenge Grayeyes’s “eligibility to serve in the office to which [he] was elected” under Utah Code 20A-4-402 (1) (g). It is undisputed that Grayeyes was a registered voter of San Juan County for at least one year before the election, and that he is currently a registered voter of San Juan County. At the time of the election, he met all of the statutory requirements of the office. And he currently meets the statutory requirements of the office.

Where a party wants to challenge the election process, they are required to act at the earliest possible opportunity to avoid disrupting the election process by interfering with the rights of absentee and other voters, candidates, political parties, and others who participate in the election process and spend money and effort toward conducting the election.

In this case, Laws had actual knowledge about the issue of Grayeyes’s residency as early as March 2018, when neighborhood caucuses were conducted. He was also aware of the litigation in Federal Court surrounding Grayeyes’s residency, and knew that Judge Nuffer had issued a preliminary injunction on August 9, 2018 to compel San Juan County to put Grayeyes back on the ballot.

It was in March, of course, that Wendy Black filed a last minute challenge to Grayeyes’ residency. It was done in haste and the county clerk was clearly unfamiliar with the proper protocol. The subsequent investigation by a Sheriff’s deputy and a few interviews with other residents of Paiute Mesa led to the county’s decision to remove Grayeyes from the ballot. An appeal to the federal court was inevitable, as was its decision to reinstate Grayeyes.

Grayeyes eventually defeated his opponent, Kelly Laws, 973 to 814. Now, months after the election, the lawsuit by Kelly Laws seeks to invalidate the entire election campaign and the decision made by voters in November.

Judge Torgerson offered these observations….

But despite knowing about the issue of Grayeyes’s residency for at least 7 months before the election, Laws delayed bringing his challenge until after the election was concluded. And, notably, his challenge wasn’t actually filed until the last business day of the 40-day period when he could have brought the challenge. Instead of acting at his earliest possible opportunity, Laws acted at his very last possible opportunity…

And his delay is prejudicial to important public interest concerns and the integrity of the election process. In supporting Grayeyes, the San Juan County Democratic Party spent at least $20,000 and hundreds of hours of volunteer time. The Democratic Party was also unable to substitute and support a replacement candidate before the election. Ballots were printed. And some 1,787 votes were cast in the election that would be nullified if the election was not confirmed.

Laws could have challenged Grayeyes’s declaration of candidacy and qualification to vote, thereby resolving the issue before public interest concerns became a problem.

* * *

So, as I write this, Willie Grayeyes is still the District #2 commissioner from San Juan County, Utah and the relationship between those who oppose him and those who support him has never been so divisive and ugly.

The word now in San Juan County via social media posts, but not officially, is that Laws plans to appeal Judge Torgerson’s decision to the Utah Appellate Court. The rancor continues. Like rest of the country, the microcosm that is San Juan County continues to devolve into two separate divided entities, full of loathing and distrust for the other, each absolutely confident in the purity of their own cause, each one hoping their own self-righteousness will prevail.

So whatever hell we’re living through in America and in San Juan County continues. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?

Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.

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*Note: The Cartoonist screwed up. In a subconscious attempt to escape the world’s news, he changed one of our Backbone Member’s names from “Michael” to “Richard” Cohen. Sorry, Michael. We know you’re a way better guy than that infamous Michael Cohen and we beg your forgiveness.

6 comments for “Take it or Leave it: ‘Laws v Grayeyes’ (The war grinds on in San Juan County)…by Jim Stiles

  1. Evan Cantor
    February 6, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Wow Jim! You’ve bent over so far backwards to appear objective that you may have kissed your own bee-hind… I’m sure it’s worth a kiss or two, but that’s not my real point. To all appearances, this story is about a racist alt-right ass and his minions, all who hate Navajos. Just my interpretation of the facts as presented. I think it would be hard too disagree that Mormons, Americans and Native Americans have all hated each other for generations. So the thing missing from this story is: what does Willie Grayeyes have to say about why he has been demonized by so-called ‘conservative’ opposition?

  2. Jami Bayles
    February 6, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    Evan Cantor, did you read the entire article? This is an extremely complex issue and, sorry, but to all appearances, your “interpretation” of this article (yes article, not story) is an asinine one. Just because Mr. Laws wants someone that will potentially be representing him to prove his eligibility, that makes him a “racist alt-right ass?” What about the Navajos that have also questioned it, do you see them as racist alt-right asses? Are you categorizing them as Mr. Laws’ “minions”? Historically I will admit that there has been some tension between Mormons and Native Americans (although not sure why you’ve created a separate category for just “Americans”), but that is not the case here. You need to look at the facts and leave race and religion out of it. If you do that, and get your buddies to do the same, we as a society might actually be able to fix some shit.

  3. Nicole Perkins
    February 7, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    With all due respect, Jim, I think you missed some important facts in your article and in doing so have “missed the boat” so to speak.
    First, your likening of Trump opposition tactics to those who oppose Commissioner Grayeyes is faulty at best and offensive at worst. Yes, some pretty nasty Facebook rhetoric has ensued which is embarrassing to both sides. Despite the nastiness on social media, I believe that the residents of San Juan County accept that unless or/and until a higher court rules otherwise, Commissioner Grayeyes is, in fact our commissioner, and has the the power to act in that capacity. Otherewise, why would a group more than 50 citizens gather in the commission chambers to address the potential of pending resolutions that would require Grayeyes vote to pass?
    Despite the heated opposition, no one has protested with violence and vandalism outside of Grayeyes home (maybe because no one knows where that is) or place of business or at his swearing in ceremony or commission meetings or anywhere in San Juan County screaming “Not my Commissioner!” No one sought out the media and demanded there be a recount claiming the election was rigged. Evidence of interference from outside special interest groups here in San Juan County is real and documented as opposed to the Russian Collusion investigation which has yet to produce any evidence after 2 1/2 years of digging.
    I’m not sure what other legal tactics the concerned citizens had other than to
    file a lawsuit… With Mr. Laws hands tied to be able to file until after the election was canvassed, required by state law, but filing within the 40 days as required, Judge Torgerson is in essence saying “You followed State Law, Mr. Laws, but you waited too long to file even though it was within the required time frame”. There was no violation of “laches” in this case even though the Judge desperately tried to make it seem so.
    Judge Torgerson attempted something very interesting in his ruling by geographicallt lumping Paiute Mesa in with the community of Navajo Mountain. This would be essentially like geographically lumping Fry Canyon in with the community of Blanding. In my opinion, it was important for Torgerson to muddle the two areas so as to justify ignoring Grayeyes sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, place of residency on the Paiute Mesa where too much evidence was produced to disprove the claim.
    There is more at stake here than to have the comfort and ease of just “moving on”. The Judge’s ruling creates the potential of a very messy political future for elections in San Juan County. If this was going to be a “one time deal” then I can see the temptation to just let everything lay as it is in the hopes of not creating more conflict. If we are now to be a county ruled by tradition, in part, then future elections with the right to have local representation could very easily become a farce essentially destroying our ability to have any county boundaries. Politely “moving on” is not an option here if we are going to continue to be a county ruled by law. So you see, it’s not our “self-righteousness” that we hope prevails, but the rule of law, state law, and not the attempts of a very green judge attempting to legislate from the bench.
    But I am always open to suggestions and other solutions. So, Mr. Stiles, how would you suggest “dealing with reality”? If you’re having a tough time coming up with any, it’s understandable. Quite frankly, condemning all parties involved was the easiest way to report on the situation. That way you can claim the higher ground without actually participating in the battle.

  4. James Stiles
    February 8, 2019 at 8:57 am

    Hi Nicole…I understand your frustration and you make some good points. But I’m not trying to take a “high road or low road.” I read the testimony and the problem for me from a legal perspective was that I don’t think Laws proved his case.

    This is just speculation on my part, but I think the “umbilical cord” defense that Grayeyes presented served two purposes. First Grayeyes wanted to publicly establish his “bona fides” as a traditional Native American and link himself to Navajo customs. Whether he actually adheres to them, I have no idea.

    But the “umbilical defense” also served as a great diversion. The idea that one could establish residency by such means seemed ludicrous. And the response I observed coming from Grayeyeys’ opponents was something like, “…If that’s the best they can come up with, we’ve got this beat.”

    But the reality was—Laws had to prove that Grayeyes didn’t live in Utah. Period. Nothing else mattered. When Stirba took the case for Laws and when I heard what his fee would cost, I assumed that he’d conduct a serious comprehensive new investigation, that he’d uncover new information and more than anything, he’d establish just WHERE precisely Willie Grayeyes lives. Because isn’t that the ultimate point? If Grayeyes does NOT live in Utah, then where DOES he live? There must be some structure where Grayeyes resides. Otherwise his argument that he sleeps on guest beds and under outdoor shade shelters goes unchallenged. The information that Stirba presented re: trailers in Page were ineffective. He never came close to proving that Grayeyes currently resides in it.

    But instead of seeking new information, Stirba relied mainly on the original investigation by the deputy which was tainted from the get-go by the fact that the process of filing a complaint was not done correctly. I have never thought that John David was trying to do anything illegal. I’ve known him for years and I consider him an honorable man. But I don’t think he was familiar with the process and the person who filed the complaint believed she was up against a deadline; consequently things went badly.

    Speaking of Wendy Black’s original complaint, according to Black, she was asked to file the complaint on the afternoon of the very last day that a citizen of San Juan County COULD do so. I had heard for a couple years the rumor that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident. Yet nobody did anything to challenge his residency until, according to Black, a few hours before the deadline. Why? Why didn’t anyone challenge his residency when he ran for commissioner in 2012?

    In 2018, knowing that Grayeyes planned to run again, why didn’t the Republican Party challenge Grayeyes officially? They could have hired an independent investigative team to seek the information in a professional and unbiased manner. But instead, nobody did anything. The initial investigation consisted of Wendy Black and her husband driving around the reservation in an afternoon, looking for Grayeyes’ residence, with hours to spare before the deadline. I offer this description based on what Wendy told me in a very lengthy and detailed email in August 2018.

    Finally, the Republican Party had other opportunities to affect the outcome of the election. For starters, the Democratic primary between incumbent Rebecca Benally and challenger Ken Maryboy was an open primary. It meant that any Republican could cross over and support Benally. Republicans were so supportive of Ms Benally that the party didn’t even run a candidate against her in the general election. But every registered Republican in that district could have crossed over and supported Benally. It would have guaranteed her victory. This information was well-known to Republican Party leaders as far back as February 2018. But efforts to get the word out were minimal. Hundreds of San Juan County Republicans failed to make the effort to support Benally in an open election and she lost by 38 votes.

    Consequently, Kenneth Maryboy won the primary and the Republicans didn’t even have a candidate to run against him. Ultimately he was challenged by a write-in which was doomed to fail.

    My point is, people in San Juan County who loathe the recent changes in their county can sincerely claim the moral high ground all they want, but if they don’t learn how to work with the political process and use it to their advantage, they are doomed to lose again and again.

  5. Evan Cantor
    February 8, 2019 at 11:45 am

    hiya Jami–Yes, I did read the whole article. The reason I differentiated between Mormons and Americans is because Mormons weren’t always “Americans”. They lived in the state of Deseret before giving up cherished traditions (polygamy) to become Americans. They hated the Americans because they were persecuted by Americans (US citizens). Native Americans weren’t any happier about Mormon white people usurping their lands either. They were used and manipulated by both Mormons and Americans. I think Jim’s descriptions of what Mr. Laws and the Republicans could have done before filing a lawsuit after the fact of the election says it all. Maybe those conservatives aren’t the ‘alt-right racist asses’ I characterized them as, but the lawsuit says they’re playing that game. Why not make friends with their political opponent and try to find solutions that work for everybody involved? Why attempt to marginalize Mr. Grayeyes simply because he represents something other than their own precious selves?

  6. Wendy Black
    February 9, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Just for clarification. Willie’s residency was challenged in 2012. The county clerk then did not know how to handle it. He therefore ignored the complaint. I did my research. I also knew that Willie was not a resident because I heard him on a radio show say he lived in Tuba City, Arizona. I did not know he was running for election until the day I was contacted by another citizen. Which happened to be the same day that I was required to file my complaint. Just for clarification…..

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