San Juan Co. acknowledges ‘lapse in judgment,’ but defends actions in kicking candidate off the ballot

Willie Grayeyes is sworn in to testify at a legislative committee hearing on Feb. 8, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — San Juan County acknowledged a “serious lapse in judgment” but defended its actions in kicking a candidate off the ballot in a special election ordered after a federal judge found racial gerrymandering in local politics.

Willie Grayeyes was booted from the ballot as the Democratic candidate for county commission in a special election after San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson determined he did not live in Utah. Grayeyes sued the county, contending he did.

A federal judge ordered Grayeyes back on the ballot on Tuesday, rejecting San Juan County’s efforts to dismiss the case. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, which backed Grayeyes in the legal challenge, said Nielson improperly backdated a complaint to the candidate’s residency.

In a statement to FOX 13 on Thursday, San Juan County acknowledged the original complaint about Grayeyes was backdated to match the original complaint.

“Mr. Nielson, believing the document was simply formalizing the previous challenge of the same date, also dated the document with that date. While Mr. Nielson and the County recognize that this was a serious lapse in judgment, it had no impact on the outcome of the residency challenge,” Blake Hamilton, an attorney for the county, said in the written statement.

“Mr. Nielson decided the challenge based on the evidence before him, including the challenger’s statement, the Sheriff’s Deputy’s investigation, and evidence from Mr. Grayeyes, and based on his understanding of what the state statutes required, not based on the date of the form or Mr. Grayeyes’ race, ethnicity, or political opinions.”

Alliance for a Better Utah, a liberal think tank, has called for an independent investigation into the county clerk’s actions. The Utah Attorney General’s Office may ultimately be asked to determine if anything criminal took place.

“On a personal note, all of Mr. Nielson’s children identify as Navajo and it has pained him to witness firsthand the discrimination that they have faced. Mr. Nielson and the County have always been committed to professionally administering to the duties of their offices and remain committed to ethically discharging those duties in the future,” Hamilton said in the county’s statement.

Grayeyes is a prominent Navajo activist, who chairs Utah Dine Bikeyah, which advocated for the creation of Bears Ears National Monument and is now fighting for its preservation after President Trump ordered it to be shrunk.

He’s running for county commission in a special election ordered this year by another federal judge who found racial gerrymandering in county commission and school board seats in San Juan County. Native Americans make up a population majority, but the judge declared that boundaries drawn for the elected offices made them a political minority.

San Juan County is appealing the racial gerrymandering ruling and on Thursday asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to overturn the gerrymandering ruling. It acknowledged, however, it may be too late to stop the election but urged the appeals court to address the significance of special elections and when they are appropriate.

“The County recognizes that by the time this case is heard by this Court and
an opinion is issued, the special elections will have taken place. Regardless of the
outcome of this case, there will be no remedy available for the County
Commission and School Board members whose terms were cut short or for those
who had to expend considerable resources to run again,” county attorney Jesse Trentadue wrote. “There will be no remedies for County residents who voted for and expected representation from those elected officials.”