"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

Indicted NM sheriff under pressure to quit, but will he?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-08-21 15:30

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE TOMMY?: The Rio Arriba County commission wants embattled sheriff Tommy Rodella to resign but there’s little indication that Rodella will step down.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ESPAÑOLA – The three members of the Rio Arriba County Commission on Thursday morning unanimously called for county sheriff Tommy Rodella to resign.

But whether Rodella will step aside is another matter.

Rodella and his son, Tommy Jr., were arrested Friday by FBI agents and have been indicted on charges in connection to a traffic stop in which a local motorist was arrested and claimed the older Rodella assaulted him. Both Rodeallas pleaded not guilty in federal court and were released on their own recognizance.

In an unsparing three-page letter to Rodella, commissioners Danny Garcia, Barney Trujillo and Alfredo Montoya called the sheriff “reckless” and “abrasive,” said he has conducted “vindictively motivated investigations” and called on Rodella to resign by Tuesday.

“If he would bow out gracefully now, I think that would show what kind of individual he is,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog after the commission meeting wrapped up. “The controversy that surrounds him is not good for the office, it’s not good for the county.”

New Mexico Watchdog went to Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office to get reaction from Rodella, but was told he wasn’t in the office.

Since Friday’s arrest, Rodella has been showing up for work, although the federal judge who arraigned him Friday ordered the sheriff to give up his gun. On Wednesday, Rodella’s lawyers blasted back at prosecutors, accusing U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez of having a “personal vendetta” against Rodella and calling on Martinez to drop all charges by Friday.

The attorneys claim Martinez withheld information from the grand jury that would have cleared Rodella and say they can produce witnesses who can testify Martinez threatened Rodella “if he were to interfere with the activities of U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel.”

After Rodella and his son were released by a federal judge last week, some members of the Rodella family wore T-shirts that said, “When Injustice Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty.”

APPLYING PRESSURE: Rio Arriba County commissioners on Thursday called for Tommy Rodella to quit and insists the county taxpayers won’t pay for his legal defense.

There’s been some question about whether Rio Arriba County taxpayers would have to pay for Rodella’s legal fees, but on Thursday morning county commissioners voted 3-0 to rescind any contract with Rodella and his attorneys.

“Be advised that from the Aug. 12 date of your indictment forward we will not authorize payment of your legal defense in the criminal case,” the commissioners’ letter to Rodella said.

Does the commission have the authority to do that? New Mexico Watchdog left a message with one of Rodella’s attorneys, Robert Gorence, but didn’t receive a response.

What if Rodella simply refuses to quit?

“All we can do as commissioners is basically what we did today — give him a vote of no confidence,” Trujillo said. “We hope he does the right thing.”

Copies of the letter were to be sent to the offices of the governor, the state attorney general, the state district attorney who is responsible for Rio Arriba County and the U.S. Justice Department.

“If (Rodella) feels it’s not the right thing to resign, then we have to ask higher authorities than us, is it the right thing, what does he do to us and how does he jeopardize the county,” Trujillo said.

Rodella lost his bid for re-election in the Democratic Party primary in June. His term as sheriff expires in January.

“Clearly, the County would be better served if you would step aside and allow your office to re-group itself,” the letter said. “There is no reason to continue to put the integrity of your deputies in jeopardy by having you as their leader.”

Rodella has had a tumultuous political and law enforcement career.

In 1994, the Rio Grande Sun newspaper reported an internal investigation by New Mexico State Police concluded Rodella had tickets tossed out of court to help his wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella, a Democrat representing Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos counties, in her 1992 campaign. Rodella resigned from the state police.

In 1994, the paper reported Rodella paid a $2,500 fine to the Jicarilla Apache Game and Fish Department for shooting a decoy of a deer from his patrol car.

After getting elected as a magistrate court judge, Rodella was investigated by the state Judicial Standards Commission regarding three cases, including a drunken driving allegation. In 2010 the state Supreme Court banned him from ever serving on the bench.

In Thursday’s letter, county commissioners cited 11 examples of what it called Rodella’s “substandard performance.”

Among them were allegations, first reported by KOB-TV, that drivers in the county were pulled over for alleged traffic citations but were told they could avoid getting a ticket if they contributed to a scholarship fund supported by the sheriff. “It does not appear there has ever been a scholarship recipient of the fund since it was set up” in 2012, the station reported.

“The commission is very, very concerned about the integrity of Rio Arriba County and our department,” commission chairman Garcia said after Thursday’s meeting adjourned. “There have been so many things that have been happening in the sheriff’s office. We feel it’s currently putting us in more liability in any cases he moves forward on.”

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of commissioners Trujillo and Garcia talking about the case:

And here’s the letter the county commissioners sent to Rodella:

Rio Arriba County Commission letter

The ‘Elephant Man’ wins again in New Mexico court

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-20 15:17

“ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM”: Ched MacQuigg wearing an elephant mask that he refused to remove while attending a 2008 Albuquerque Public Schools meeting.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The “Elephant Man” has won another round in court against the Albuquerque Public School Board.

On Monday, a federal judge rejected a motion by the board to reconsider an earlier ruling in favor of Ched MacQuigg, a former APS shop teacher who has harshly criticized the board and twice wore an elephant mask at meetings to protest what he says is the board’s infringing on his free speech rights.

“There being neither an intervening change in the law, new evidence previously unavailable, nor a demonstration of clear error in the Court’s (previous) ruling … defendants’ motions for reconsideration … are denied,” Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo said in a terse ruling.

The ruling keeps in place Armijo’s decision earlier this year, granting MacQuigg a preliminary injunction that ruled the board had no right to keep him out of its public meetings.

“They want the public forum to be according to their rules, which means they’re never made to feel uncomfortable about anything,” MacQuigg said. “They’ve said a number of times that if you want to stand up at a public forum and praise them, there’s no problem, even praising them by name. But if you want to criticize them, you’re not allowed to.”

School board member and attorney Martin Esquivel banned MacQuigg from board meetings in 2010. It’s unclear whether APS will appeal the injunction. New Mexico Watchdog left messages with Esquivel on Tuesday and Wednesday, but didn’t receive a response.

After Armijo ruled against the board in March, Esquivel told the Albuquerque Journal, “I have never disagreed more with a legal opinion in my 25 years of practicing law.”

MacQuigg has filed a lawsuit against APS and says the board is wasting taxpayers’ money fighting the case.

TURNING BACK THE BAN: Ched MacQuigg (left) , being escorted out of a 2011 Albuquerque Public Schools meeting.

“They could have settled this about three years and settled for about 20 grand but they decided to engage in this litigation,” MacQuigg said.

Earlier this year, APS communications specialist Johanna King told New Mexico Watchdog the school district had spent “about $250,000.” But that was prior to filing the motion to reconsider.

“If they go to trial on this, they’re going to add another half million to the taxpayers’ tab,” MacQuigg said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

MacQuigg’s wrangling with the board started in 2006, when MacQuigg accused board members of not living up to the spirit of an APS curriculum called “Character Counts,” which has since been phased out.

Esquivel and other board members accused MacQuigg of speaking out of turn and interrupting meetings. They also said MacQuigg made personal attacks and, in papers filed with Armijo, worried MacQuigg was a “ticking time bomb.”

At two meetings, MacQuigg wore an elephant mask because he believed the board was ignoring him and said the mask represented the “elephant in the room.”

Three years ago, MacQuigg was physically escorted out of one board meeting. Update 8:33 p.m. : MacQuigg emailed to say that he has been “ejected or blocked from entering, well over a dozen meetings.”

But in March, Armijo ruled the board was out of line.

MacQuigg may have “exhibited idiosyncratic behaviors,” but the public “has an interest in seeing public meetings conducted in a manner that respects attendees’ First Amendment rights,” Armijo said in her March 31 decision.

Monday’s ruling comes on the heels of the APS board approving a $350,000 buyout for Winston Brooks, who is resigning after six years as APS superintendent. The agreement with Brooks has received criticism because its details haven’ t been released to the public.

Court to hear disputed election and voter fraud allegations

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-20 07:45

QUESTIONS ABOUND: A judge will determine the validity of absentee ballots cast from Sunland Park, N.M., the site of numerous political controversies over the years.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The border town of Sunland Park is no stranger to political controversies and accusations of stolen elections.

Friday, another chapter unfolds when a sitting member of the New Mexico House of Representatives who lost a close Democratic Party primary in June will try to persuade a judge to throw out all or some of the absentee votes from precincts in Sunland Park.

Watching closely will be another Democrat, Merrie Lee Soules, who also lost a nail-biter in her bid to get elected to the Public Regulation Commission.

“It makes me furious to think there are people who think it’s OK to hijack an election,” Soules said.

Strong words, but Soules believes there are serious questions about the lopsided outcomes involving absentee votes in the two precincts that make up Sunland Park.

“I think there was fraud involved with the ballots,” Soules said in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog.

Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, a 12-year incumbent who lost to Bill Gomez by 16 votes, filed Friday’s court challenge.

In the two Sunland Park precincts, Gomez received 88 votes; Garcia got just 15.

Garcia is questioning the relatively high number of absentee votes that came out of Sunland Park and thinks the big advantage Gomez accrued is suspicious.

“That’s what we’re zeroing in on,” Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog before the challenge was filed. “There has to be integrity in our elections.”

Gomez thinks Garcia is a sore loser.

“I think it’s a bunch of bull,” Gomez said when he first heard of Garcia’s challenge. “I got the most votes and that’s the way it goes … I ran a clean campaign. I won and that’s the way life is.”

VOTER FRAUD ALLEGATIONS: Democrat and Public Regulation Commission candidate Merrie Lee Soules thinks voters in Sunland Park were manipulated and intimidated in the June primary.

Soules, who lost to Jones by 128 votes, thinks the absentee votes out of Sunland Park made a significant difference in her race.

New Mexico Watchdog left a message with Soules’ opponent, Sandy Jones, but we have not received a response.

Sunland Park makes up two precincts in Doña Ana County and, according to County Clerk Lynn Ellins, Jones beat Soules in the Precinct 13 absentee balloting, 51-2. In the other Sunland Park precinct, Precinct 97, Jones won the absentee vote, 34-1.

That’s a combined total of 85-3.

Soules claims there’s “a pattern” throughout the years of Sunland Park turning out a disproportionate number of absentee votes in primaries as well as general elections, often with one candidate receiving an overwhelming number of votes.

A review by New Mexico Watchdog of the precincts’ returns in recent elections seems to bear that out.

For example, in the 2010 primary the official election returns compiled by the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office showed many more absentee ballots cast in the two Sunland Park precincts than in other precincts in Doña Ana County.

In the 2010 general election, the Sunland Park precincts also turned out a greater number of absentee ballots compared to most others in the county, with some candidates winning by margins such as 76-2 and 54-3.

In the 2008 general election, the difference between one candidate and another in Sunland Park absentee ballots included such lopsided results as 108-4, 111-3 and 110-4 in favor of Democrats.

It should be noted that Sunland Park is an area with an overwhelming Democratic majority.

But in the 2008 Democratic primary, Sunland Park turned out more absentee voters than any other county precincts. While the absentee numbers were about half that seen in the general election, the results were often just as lopsided — 66-7, for example, in Precinct 13 for a county treasurer’s race.

When asked about the high number of absentee votes in Sunland Park, county clerk Ellins said, “It doesn’t surprise me. Sunland Park has a history of having significantly more absentee votes cast as a percentage than other areas of the county.”

Why?

“I’d rather not speculate on that.”

Often, Democrats across the country dismiss allegations of voter fraud but Soules, a progressive, claims something is seriously wrong with the Sunland Park numbers.

“I think there is voter fraud and I think the Democrats have an opportunity to look inside the party and take proactive steps and not let these circumstances take place again,” Soules said Tuesday.

In the aftermath of a wild mayoral race in 2012 that led to a mayoral candidate getting charged with bribery, extortion and receiving illegal kickbacks, a former Sunland Park city employee admitted to multiple charges of voter fraud for inducing non-residents to vote.

As for Friday’s court date, 3rd Judicial District Court Judge Jim Martin will hear Garcia’s case and said he intends to reach a decision the same day.

It’s expected the judge could make one of four rulings:

1. He finds no — or insufficient — evidence of fraud and Gomez is declared the winner.

2. He throws out the absentee votes from Sunland Park and Garcia is declared the winner.

3. He throws out all the votes as well as all of the ballots from Sunland Park, which would affect every race on the ballot including the Soules-Jones contest. That could trigger an automatic recount in the Soules-Jones race because the margin will be less than one-tenth of 1 percent, meeting the requirements for a state-mandated recount.

4. He orders a new election in the Garcia-Gomez race in House District 34. Since the race has no Republicans, Martin could order the Garcia-Gomez rematch on the November general election ballot. When asked about this scenario, Ellins said, “It’s not ever happened, as far as I know” in state history.

Unlike Garcia, Soules did not file a court challenge contesting her race because she hoped the state Attorney General or the Secretary of State would step in. “I had to be able to do criminal investigations that I’m just not prepared or equipped to do,” Soules said.

But she said she’ll be in court Friday to see what happens.

“If they throw out the ballots, that has the potential to affect the PRC race and throw it into an automatic recount.”

Albuquerque school boss gets $350,000 buyout, taxpayers don’t get answers

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-18 15:37

GOLDEN PARACHUTE: Winston Brooks resigned as the head of the Albuquerque Public Schools and received a $350,000 buyout. But taxpayers have not been told why he’s leaving.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Even in departing, Winston Brooks is a source of controversy.

After six bumpy years as the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, the 62-year-old Brooks resigned Friday after signing an agreement with the Albuquerque School Board that will see him receive a lump sum payment of $350,000.

The public hasn’t been told why.

Brooks won’t give a reason why he’s stepping down and the board won’t release an investigative report into what was called a “serious personnel issue” concerning Brooks that led to the resignation.

The report will be kept “in a file separate from Brooks’ personnel file, and it shall not be released to anyone,” the agreement said.

“The public needs to know why he was let go,” said Kathi Bearden, president of the executive committee at New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “It’s their money.”

The only public comment from the board was a statement issued by board president Analee Maestas that said in part “both (Brooks and the board) agree that this decision is the best option for APS at this time.”

Brooks had two years remaining on his contract, worth about $600,000.

New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act has an exemption for “letters or memorandums which are matters of opinion in personnel files” as well as a “attorney-client privileged information.”

But Susan Boe, executive director at NMFOG, has doubts whether those exceptions apply in the Brooks case.

“Our position is there are a lot of facts in that report and they should be disclosed,” Boe told New Mexico Watchdog on Monday. “As for the attorney-client privilege, we don’t have the report so we don’t know how much of that strictly applies. And the attorney-client privilege can be waived by the client. In this case, the client is the school district.”

New Mexico Watchdog will file an Inspection of Public Records Act request to obtain details of Brooks’ resignation. NMFOG’s executive committee is meeting Tuesday to decide to file its own IPRA request. If the committee goes forward, New Mexico Watchdog and NMFOG will join forces and file together.

Update 8/19: New Mexico Watchdog filed its IPRA request Tuesday afternoon. NMFOG filed its IPRA request separately from New Mexico Watchdog on Tuesday. In a news release, NMFOG president Kathi Bearden said, “The investigation report is a public document and needs to be released. No one has seen the report, but we assume it is mainly a factual account, not opinion, and therefore not protected by the limited personnel exemption under IPRA.”

The school board’s agreement also mentions Brooks’ wife, Ann, saying APS waives its right to file any legal complaints against Brooks or his wife. Both sides agreed to pay a $25,000 penalty if they publicly bad-mouth each other.

It’s not known why Ann Brooks, who is not an APS employee, is mentioned in the agreement.

“That’s certainly not the personnel exception,” Boe said.

Last November, Winston Brooks called 911 during a dispute with Ann Brooks. No arrests were made, but Winston Brooks, a diabetic, was taken to a nearby hospital for elevated blood sugar levels and high blood pressure.

“The public has a strong interest in knowing the circumstances that led to his resignation and it’s costing (taxpayers) $350,000. At a minimum they could redact the investigation and take the stuff that is opinion and take that out,” Boe said.

In addition to the $350,000 buyout, the district agreed to grant Brooks $25,000 in sick pay for a month. Then there’s the still-to-be-disclosed cost of the board’s investigation into the “serious personnel issue” that led to Brooks’ ouster.

What’s more, there are at least two lawsuits pending against Brooks that the district and Albuquerque taxpayers face. One suit was filed by three APS principals who allege women were disproportionately demoted in 2010. The other is from a former associate superintendent who claims she was demoted after complaining Brooks “treated women with disdain.”

One clause in Friday’s agreement cryptically says if “Brooks is sued by any person for any actions taken while acting in the course and scope in his duties as Superintendent, Brooks will be provided a defense and indemnification for any settlement or verdict, with counsel designated by the District.”

“What kind of things are we indemnifying?” asked Bearden. “Civil complaints? Criminal complaints? And for what period time?”

Click here to read the Brooks’ resignation agreement with the school board.

During his time in Albuquerque, Brooks can point to a number of successes. For instance, the agreement mentioned graduation rates jumped from 50 percent to 73 percent during Brooks’ tenure.

But he also was the center of a number of controversies.

The biggest came last November when Brooks, tweeting during a board meeting to a television reporter, made fun of Public Education Department secretary-designate Hanna Skandera. Gov. Susana Martinez, who had clashed with Brooks, chastised Brooks, who was suspended three days by the APS board.

 

America has a ‘militarization moment’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-15 14:04

ON POINT: A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Call it our “militarization moment.”

We have seen something like Ferguson, Mo., before. A police officer shoots and kills a young black man, which touches off protests and looting. Which prompts headlong rushes to judgment about the actions of everyone involved — the cops, elected officials, activists and the media. Which causes us to question our progress on race, our politics and our national character.

We saw it with the beating of Rodney King in 1992 in Los Angeles. We saw it again with the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Fla.

What’s different this time is police officers armed with equipment and weaponry normally associated with overseas military operations.

And a lot of Americans don’t like what they see.

“In Ferguson and beyond, it seems that some police officers have shed the blue uniform and have put on the uniform and gear of the military, bringing the attitude along with it,” wrote Paul Szoldra, who served in the Marines in Afghanistan.

The photos have been dramatic:

IT HAPPENED: member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo.

 

A LINE IN THE STREET: A protester faces a line of police in Ferguson, Mo.

 

For years the federal government has been providing surplus military equipment to local law enforcement through the 1033 Program which has, since its inception in 1997, delivered $5.1 billion in weapons, Humvees, 30-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and even helicopters and drones to cities and towns across the country.

The pace of the military equipment dispersal has quickened with the winding down of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2013 alone, the 1033 Program transferred more than $449 million in equipment, weapons and vehicles to local law enforcement.

“The only cost we incurred was the gas it took to drive it back,” the police chief in Ruidoso, N.M. — population 8,005 — told New Mexico Watchdog in June of the practically mint-condition MRAP his department picked up in Sealy, Texas. “The cost was zero dollars.”

But carrying out a military operation is a lot different than local policing.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, said two months before the Ferguson unrest. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

A SPARK: Protesters try unsuccessfully to light a Molotov cocktail, Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo.

Arming civilian police forces with military gear runs the risk of conditioning “police officers to see the people they serve — the people with whom they interact everyday — as the enemy,” Radley Balko, wrote in his 2013 book, “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.”

The hyper-arming of police has been going on in big cities and small towns.

Little Preston Idaho, population 5,000 has a MRAP, as a Watchdog.org reporter found.

Nearly 20 communities in New Mexico and New Mexico State University’s campus police now have MRAPs, New Mexico Watchdog discovered. The police department in Hobbs was so proud it produced a 30-second commercial featuring the vehicle and its officers in military gear, weapons drawn, bursting through the door of a house.

Federal agencies in growing numbers field their own law enforcement departments, Watchdog reported in April. These departments protect at taxpayer expense such security risks as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Education.

Police chiefs who have solicited our excess military hardware insist it is helpful, especially in violent situations.

CLICK HERE TO READ WATCHDOG.ORG’S FULL COVERAGE OF MRAPs

Like a domestic violence incident in May in Los Lunas, N.M. The bullet-proof MRAP protected officers and the public from 70 rounds fired by a suspect barricaded in a house, Police Chief Naithan Gurule said.

The wholesale rioting and chaos in Ferguson, Mo., was potentially far more deadly. However, watching a St. Louis suburb morph into a scene from Black Hawk Down has some Americans weighing concerns about lawlessness in equal measure with the armed might of lawmen.

“The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote in Time magazine. “It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.”

Since Paul’s commentary was posted Thursday the national debate on militarized police has metastasized.

And that’s a good thing. A full-throated argument — even an angry one full of distortion and political bias — has been long overdue.

After all, local police forces are funded with tax dollars that come from each and every one of us. Police are public servants, first and foremost, just like our elected public servants, our mayors, city councilors and clerks.

A MOMENT OF PEACE: Demonstrators hold candles and signs Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Hundreds of people protesting the death of Michael Brown marched through the streets of Ferguson alongside state troopers Thursday after county law enforcement were relieved of duty.

 

 

After two months, an uneasy coexistence at NM immigration facility continues

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-15 14:02

TWO MONTHS ON: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. has been renovated to house up to 700 women and children who entered the U.S. illegally.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It’s been nearly two months since the federal government decided to send up to 700 women and children who entered the U.S. illegally to a facility in Artesia, a town of just more than 10,000 in southeast New Mexico.

The progress report, says the town’s mayor, is a bit mixed.

“I guess things are going as well as they could be,” Mayor Phil Burch told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview Thursday morning.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement but, on the other hand, it’s not as if Burch and city leaders had a lot of say in the matter.

In late June, thousands of immigrants entered the U.S., many willingly turning themselves into Border Patrol agents. Nearly all migrated from countries in Central America; it’s been estimated that more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have come across the border since October.

Scrambling for potential solutions, the federal government, led by the U.S. Homeland Security Department in conjunction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, looked at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center as a way to house and process the flow of humanity.

In Artesia for nearly 30 years, FLETC trains future agents for the Border Patrol and other federal agencies. On June 17, federal officials told Burch about the plan to house women and children up to the age of 17 in converted dormitories on the center’s property. The immigrants arrived later that month.

MAKING DO: Phil Burch, the mayor of Artesia, says the federal employees at FLETC are doing a good job but there is still a sense of anxiety about the facility. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

New Mexico Watchdog wanted to get reaction from federal officials about the progress at FLETC, but multiple emails and voice mail messages went unreturned.

“The stated purpose of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is to train law enforcement personnel,” Burch said. “Anything other than that, in my mind, takes the focus off of what they’re there for. Personally, I was opposed to it … but I realize they’ve been fulfilling the mission they’ve been given.”

There have been some bumps, though.

Some of the issues include:

Health

Burch said the residents’ quarters are still under a 21-day quarantine after two cases of chicken pox were discovered. Burch said no new residents have been added until the quarantine is lifted. That’s expected to come Aug. 21. “It’s been pretty quiet because of that,” said Burch, who said the facility’s population is down to 542.

Education

Federal law mandates children at public facilities receive an education. Burch, who attends weekly meetings at FLETC, said Thursday officials are choosing among three bidders. “I would doubt it would be a public school,” Burch said. On Tuesday, the superintendent of the Artesia Public Schools told New Mexico Watchdog the school district is not one of the bidders, and he understands that any instruction will be conducted on the FLETC site. Burch said instruction should begin in about two weeks

Deportations

Shortly after it opened, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured the facility and announced that about 40 immigrants would be flown back to their countries of origin. Burch said those deportations have continued, as people are processed in and out of the facility. Burch said a FLETC report July 29 said 209 people had been repatriated. Eighty-five more were sent back last week — 19 to Honduras, 26 to Guatemala and 40 to El Salvador. Burch said all 85 were cleared of carrying chicken pox.

Costs

Burch said local officials have been assured the federal government will pick up all costs, but he added, “There are costs. They’re difficult to quantify.” For example, Burch said FLETC agrees to pick up medical costs incurred by the residents through Medicare. But Medicare payment rates frequently don’t match the cost of services. “That void is there and we haven’t been told how it’s going to be dealt with,” Burch said.

How long the immigration facility will stay

When it opened, federal officials said they expected the facility to remain open for six to 12 months but Burch — and other local lawmakers — have their doubts. “My own opinion is they will keep this facility in operation until somebody controls the border,” Burch said. “Until the flow of mothers and children is stopped, they’ll have to send them some place. My suspicion is that until the federal government does something to control the border, nothing is going to stem the flow.”

Artesia has not been the site of protests seen in other parts of the country because, Burch said, some of the town’s major concerns have been addressed and he gives officials at the facility high marks for professionalism. But there’s still a level of anxiety.

“The community, while it’s more comfortable about security issues and medical issues than it was six or eight weeks ago, they’re still on edge,” Burch said. “But by and large, they’re tolerating it pretty well.”

A second town hall meeting is scheduled Thursday, hosted by elected officials in Artesia and Eddy County.

Sunday, a prayer rally will be held by an immigrants rights group and eight religious organizations in front of FLETC, protesting the deportations.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Who’s teaching the kids at New Mexico’s immigration facility?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-08-14 10:20

QUESTIONS REMAIN: Immigrant children at the federal facility in Artesia, N.M., will receive educational instruction but the details are still up in the air.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The school year is about to start for kids across New Mexico.

And the same goes for the children staying in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., which has been remodeled to house up to 700 immigrants, nearly all of whom came to the U.S. from Central America.

But who has been contracted to teach and how much it will cost is not so easy to discover.

New Mexico Watchdog has emailed and called federal officials at the facility multiple times, as well as left messages with the office of Artesia Mayor Phil Burch, but we haven’t gotten a response.

Shortly after the FLETC facility was refurbished in late June to accommodate the immigrants, officials at with the U.S. Homeland Security Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement told elected officials in the Artesia area the children would receive educational instruction.

Few specifics were spelled out.

“As of last Tuesday, they said the education question was still on the table,” said J.R. Doporto, a city councilor from nearby Carlsbad who attends weekly meetings HSD and ICE officials hold with local lawmakers. “It is slated to be done with a contractor, but that’s all I know.”

The superintendent at Artesia Public Schools on Tuesday said his school district will not be involved.

“We have nothing to do with educating any of those students,” superintendent Crit Caton said in a brief telephone interview. “It’s all in-house, with ICE … As a matter of fact, they haven’t asked anything from us, services, whatever. They’re doing everything in-house, within their confines.”

Update 10:15 a.m.: Burch called New Mexico Watchdog Thursday morning and said he’s been told that federal officials at FLETC are considering three bids from contractors to supply the educational component for children at the facility. Burch said he’s been told it will take “a couple of weeks” until instruction begins.

Dennis Kintigh, the mayor of Roswell, 41 miles north of the facility, took a tour of the site along with other local officials Aug. 5. Kintigh said he picked up some details during the tour, but also said the federal officials should be more forthcoming.

“Silence results in rumors and all kinds of myths and legends circulate,” Kintigh said. “You do not combat falsehoods with silence. You prevent falsehoods with truth.”

But as far as the running the facility and questions about safety, Greg Fouratt, secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety, gave federal officials high marks.

“They have allayed any concerns that any reasonable person could have about security,” said Fouratt, who has toured the facility three times. “They are managing this population very effectively … I have to say I’m proud of the Homeland Security people and the job they’re doing. It really is a first-class operation.”

Shortly after the facility opened, some 40 adults and children were deported back to their home countries.

Two cases of chicken pox led to a quarantine that Kintigh said put a temporary halt to the flights, but Kintigh said the quarantine has been lifted and repatriation flights out of the Roswell airport have resumed.

There was concern about tuberculosis, Doporto told New Mexico Watchdog, but no positive cases turned up on X-ray examinations. “They said they were bringing in some X-ray machines on site,” said Doporto. “They were slated to be online this week.”

An estimated 53,000 unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, have entered the U.S. in recent months. The facility in Artesia houses women and children but no adult men.

The feds are obligated to provide educational instruction to the children.

“There is a federal law that any juvenile who is federal custody or who is in the kind of custody where federal money is spent, there is a requirement that these kids are educated, no matter whether they are there for a week or a year,” Fouratt said.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that withholding state money for children who are in the country illegally violates the equal protection clause of the Fourth Amendment.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

New Mexico moves up to No. 5 in U.S. oil reserves

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-12 11:57

UP TO NO. 5: An annual study shows New Mexico increased its oil reserves 11.4 percent in the space of one year. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Move over, Oklahoma. New Mexico has regained its position as the fifth-richest oil state in the country.

In an annual report of the top 10 oil states put together by the financial website 24/7 Wall St., New Mexico supplanted the Sooner State with 965 million barrels of proved oil reserves.

That’s an 11.4 percent increase over the previous year’s total of 866 million barrels. “A new oil field and 170 extensions in 2012 also buoyed oil production,” wrote the editors at 24/7 Wall St., who based their survey on numbers compiled at the end of 2012 by the International Energy Agency.

In last year’s report, New Mexico slipped from No. 5 to No. 6, but the oil boom in the Permian Basin, which extends from West Texas into eastern New Mexico, put the Land of Enchantment back into the fifth-highest spot.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Dan Steffens, president of the Energy Prospectus Group in Houston. “You’re getting production of 1,000-1,500 barrels a day in the Delaware Basin,” which is located in the western edge of the Permian Basin.

Oklahoma actually saw its oil reserves increase by 55 million barrels in 2012, but it couldn’t keep up with the increase New Mexico made.

Here’s a look at the Top 10:

North Dakota made the biggest gain over last year’s numbers, leaping past California and Alaska to take over the No. 2 spot. North Dakota is home to the Bakken shale formation, which has proved to be one of the world’s most productive oil fields due in large part to advances in hydraulic fracturing.

“This is all technology driven,” Steffens said of the boom in the Permian. “It’s all horizontal drilling that’s doing it. That and tight (geological) formations.”

Overall, U.S. states turned in a banner year, combining to amass more than 30.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, up 15 percent from the end of 2011.

“As new technologies make oil easier and more affordable to extract, the United States is poised to become the world’s leading oil producer as soon as 2015,” 24/7 Wall St. said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

As Armstrong heads to NM Legislature, conflict-of-interest questions arise

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-12 11:55

POTENTIAL CONFLICTS?: Debbie Armstrong runs the day-to-day operations of New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool. She’s also about to become a member of the state legislature.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Debbie Armstrong will become a member of the New Mexico Legislature in January.

She’s also running the state’s high-risk insurance pool.

Is that a potential conflict of interest?

Armstrong doesn’t think so, but her status will soon be a topic of conversation when the board at the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool meets next month.

“Conflict of interest is a really important thing in New Mexico, to make sure we keep credibility in government in what we do,” said John Franchini, the state’s Superintendent of Insurance and chairman of the NMMIP board.

“Anytime that you’re looking at government spending with folks that are going to benefit from that, I think it deserves a higher level of scrutiny,” Jason Sandel, one of the board’s members, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Armstrong won the Democratic Party primary in June in House District 17 in Albuquerque. She has no Republican opponent in the November general election so she has a clear path to become a member of the Legislature when it convenes a 60-day session in January 2015.

She’s president of Delta Consulting Group, which won an extension worth up to $600,000 in March to manage the high-risk insurance pool for the state. Click here to read the New Mexico Watchdog story about that.

As executive director of the pool, Armstrong is in charge of the day-to-day operations of NMMIP, which was created by the New Mexico Legislature and, according to Sandel, handles $250 million annually. The pool serves about 5,600 patients.

“This is not a contract with the state,” Armstrong said. “The pool is not a state agency. It receives no state appropriations.”

Armstrong said the high-risk pool is about 25 percent funded through premiums, a “very small federal grant” and the rest is paid for by insurance carriers in the state who take part.

“I fully expect to recuse myself (in legislative votes) if there’s anything directly related to the pool and, potentially, my contract,” Armstrong said.

“I don’t have a definitive opinion yet,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMMIP board. “My thought on it is, because we have a citizen-based Legislature, we should understand what are the rules when anyone — an insurance professional, a lawyer, anyone else — is in the Legislature and has an opportunity to vote on matters that affect them. We should look through that.”

CHANGING THE POOL: Any changes to the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, which has 5,600 patients, will probably need to go through the Legislature.

Members of the New Mexico Legislature do not receive salaries, but they do get a $159 per diem and are reimbursed for travel.

Armstrong said she would not recuse herself from health care issues that don’t affect NMMIP.

“That’s my area of expertise,” she said. Armstrong was secretary of the New Mexico Aging and Long Term Services Department under Gov. Bill Richardson from 2004-2007. “I won’t stay out of health care (issues) in general but certainly anything that would directly impact the pool and impact my contract with the pool, I would recuse myself from.”

Officials at Delta Consulting have close ties to the Democratic Party in the state.

One of the co-founders at Delta is Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 and is running for re-election this fall. According to Lujan Grisham’s campaign website, she used to be president and co-founder at Delta.

“She and I started Delta Consulting,” Amstrong said. “She is still a part owner but she has no operational authority at all. She’s not the board, not an officer, nothing.”

Armstrong told New Mexico Watchdog she took leave from Delta to help Lujan Grisham run her state office but “I don’t do anything official for Michelle anymore.”

Armstrong said she has placed her daughter on Delta’s board and that Lujan Grisham has placed one of her own daughters on the board. “It’s an unpaid board,” Armstrong said.

In addition, the CEO at Delta, Reena Szczepanski, is executive director of Emerge New Mexico, an organization that recruits Democratic women to run for office in the state.

“We’ve been engaged in politics,” Armstrong said. “Our work at Delta has been to do a little bit of work, mostly to manage a nonprofit organization, providing health care, health insurance … That’s how I make my business, which is not political.”

One potential issue is the existence of the state’s high-risk pool itself.

With the passing of the Affordable Care Act, about half of the 35 states that constructed high-risk insurance pools have eliminated — or in the process off eliminating — them because one of the major provisions in “Obamacare” prohibits insurance companies from denying patients policies if they have pre-existing conditions.

Any move to shut down the pool, Franchini said, would probably need to go through the Legislature.

In fact, any changes at all to the NMMIP — for instance, there is no requirement that recipients have to be U.S. citizens — may have to be made by the Legislature.

“How we deal with them is really a question for the Legislature because the statute doesn’t give us the authority to exclude them,” Parra said.

Franchini said he expects the NMMIP board to discuss Armstrong’s status in September.

“We will address this and we will get professional opinions from our attorneys as to how she should proceed,” Franchini said.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Editorial: Bringing back SNAP requirements not too much to ask

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-11 08:48

A MODEST PROPOSAL: New Mexico’s Human Services Department wants to bring back work requirements for those receiving food stamps.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Work should not be a four-letter word, even when it comes to getting food stamps.

New Mexico’s Human Services Department plans on reinstating requirements in place before 2009 for people who receive food stamps under the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

HSD wants some — not all — of the recipients to look for work, attend a job training program or perform community service to keep their SNAP benefits.

Some anti-poverty groups are calling foul.

“We definitely think when you expand the number of people subject to mandatory work requirements, you’re obviously going to expand the number of people who can’t comply and who will be sanctioned out,” Louise Pocock, an attorney with New Mexico Center on Law Poverty, told KOB-TV.

But wait a minute. The rule won’t be forcing young mothers to abandon their toddlers. It won’t apply to disabled people who use food stamps, or the elderly.

The only people affected will be able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59. Teenagers 16 and 17 who get SNAP benefits have to prove they’re in school or in a jobs training program.

According to HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott, if you’re a single parent with a child younger than 6, you’re exempt.

If you are receiving unemployment benefits, you’re exempt.

If you’re a college student — even if you’re only in school part-time — you’re exempt. Pregnant women are exempt.

If you have a low-paying job, you don’t have to apply for a better-paying job to keep your benefits.

If you’re a single parent with a kid older than 6, you have to prove you’re looking for a job but you can skip the jobs training and community service requirements.

All told, it will affect about 26,600 of the 420,000 in New Mexico who receive SNAP benefits.

They won’t be required to work a 40-hour work week, but rather spend 20 hours a week in one of the three programs for which they’re eligible.

But there aren’t any jobs, critics say.

HSD officials counter by saying they will assign case workers to the SNAP recipients to help. If they still can’t find work, the food stamps won’t end, but people must stay in the program to keep them. HSD will also supply child care assistance and a transportation reimbursement.

Welfare is “a second chance, not a way of life,” Bill Clinton said in 1993. In 1996 he signed legislation tying work requirements to government assistance. The requirements for SNAP benefits were suspended after the economic downturn.

The plan introduced by HSD simply reinstates the requirements that were on the books.

Yes, the New Mexico economy is in dumps, but there should be an incentive for able-bodied people to improve their economic situations. When you receive unemployment benefits, you have to turn in documentation to the Department of Workforce Solutions showing you’re making a good-faith effort to find work before getting a check.

If that’s not an undue burden, the HSD requirements hardly seem unreasonable, even in tough times.

The overwhelming majority of people receiving welfare benefits are honest people who need some help.

But, just as in any program, a handful abuse the system.

Here in New Mexico, Watchdog reporter Jim Scarantino two years ago discovered that in a two-month period, electronic benefit transfer cards were used at liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs and smoke shops — including a hookah lounge. Somebody even made an EBT withdrawal at a ski resort.

Taxpayers have a right to expect their tax dollars are spent efficiently and wisely. If money is being wasted on military spending or political cronyism or building projects or anti-poverty programs, the government you pay for has an obligation to root it out.

That’s not being mean-spirited. That’s being a good steward of the public’s dollars.

This editorial first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Aug. 10, 2014. Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Can charter schools help fix public education?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-08 14:00

CHARTER SCHOOL CHAMPION: Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute believes charter schools can help improve the quality of public education in the U.S. Photo by Rob Nikolewski.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE — The American education system is under fire for inconsistent — and often lackluster — results.

Last December, for example, U.S. students didn’t crack the top 20 in an international study of 65 countries.

In results compiled every three years by the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students ranked below average in math and about average in reading and science compared to other developed countries.

Rick Hess believes charter schools can help reverse that trend.

“For me, the way you take a lousy college team and turn them into a good team is not by saying, ‘We want to go 12-0,’ but, how do we do things better,” said Hess, a former high school social studies teacher who is now the resident scholar and director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

“So rather than worry about grand progress for the U.S., my attitude is let the charters take care of their business and educate their kids well. If good charter schools expand and serve more kids, little by little they’re going to help the performance of all our children and U.S. performance will improve.”

Hess argued the public education model is outdated and broken.

“I think the big challenges to American education are, we’ve got systems that just weren’t built to educate all of our children to a high level in this century,” said Hess, who spoke to about 50 people in Albuquerque on Tuesday. “They were built around a labor force that has changed due to changes in work opportunities for professional women and the behaviors of college graduates.”

As examples, Hess cited a few statistics:

*In the 1800s, 90 percent of teachers in the United States were men

*In 1900, just 1 in 10 Americans graduated from high school

*And it wasn’t until 1970 that 90 percent of students in the country showed up for school every day

“We haven’t yet figured out how to build a system that actually works given the realities of the 21st century,” Hess said.

Hess, who also writes a blog for Education Week magazine, is a big proponent of school choice, especially charter schools, although he’s quick to say there’s no quick and easy fix.

“There’s no magic there,” he told New Mexico Watchdog after his speech at a luncheon sponsored by New Mexico’s free-market think tank, the Rio Grande Foundation.

Charter schools, which are sometimes called magnet schools, receive public funding, but they operate independently and often offer emphasis in programs such as arts or sciences.

They’re relatively new — Minnesota was the first state to pass a law creating them in 1991 — but they have their critics, especially among public school teachers unions.

One of the knocks is that charter schools don’t perform appreciably better than traditional district schools.

“I would find that (criticism) much more compelling if, A) charters weren’t spending a whole lot less per kid than district schools and if B) we didn’t see hundreds or thousands of examples of charter schools that used their autonomy to do the kinds of things for kids who need them that district schools find much more difficult to do,” said Hess, author of seven books on education, including “The Same Thing Over and Over.”

In New Mexico, the school that received the top ranking from the U.S. News and World Report was a charter school — the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science.

On the other hand, Hess told the audience Tuesday “there are some awful charter schools.”

In just the past week, the FBI seized documents from a consortium of four charter schools in Albuquerque. The state auditor charges that two of the schools spent $1.1 million since 2008 to lease aircraft from a company owned by the school’s head administrator.

“What charter schools should do is bring out schools that are lighting it up and encourage them and get rid of those that are not lighting it up,” Hess said.

“I think the key is to rethink and reimagine how we operate and deliver schooling in the 21st century,” Hess said. “You can imagine doing this wholesale (but) it’s enormously difficult to do and so voucher and charter and tuition tax credit models and such are one important way to open the door for that kind of rethinking.”

Here are some excerpts of the New Mexico Watchdog interview with Hess:

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Tourism Department plays hard to get with ‘The Bachelor’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-06 12:58

PLAYING HARD TO GET: The New Mexico Tourism Department is waiting before committing $50,000 to lure ‘The Bachelor.’ But the Santa Fe City Council has already promised up to $100,000.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The Santa Fe City Council may have committed up to $100,000 of taxpayer money to try to lure the ABC-TV reality show “The Bachelor” to tape its upcoming season in the state capital, but the New Mexico Tourism Department is playing hard to get.

“We’re not going to commit $50,000 to a project that we don’t know is going to happen,” Tourism’s Communications Director Rebecca Latham said.

There have been reports the Tourism Department already had committed $50,000 in the hopes of getting the producers of “The Bachelor” to come to New Mexico, but Latham told New Mexico Watchdog last week the department has made no decision on whether to jump into the bidding.

“Until we hear what’s set, we’re not going to make any firm committment,” Latham said Wednesday morning.

Latham said other cities are in the running to land the show, which has been on the air since 2002 and has spawned similar versions in 13 other countries, but didn’t know how many other contenders are in the race.

The show’s producers “hold all this stuff really close to the vest,” Latham said. “They’re the ones holding all the cards. ”

Santa Fe already has put up money to lure the reality show.

Last week, the Santa Fe City Council voted to commit at least $50,000 and up to $100,000 to the project even though there’s no guarantee the producers will choose the City Different.

The council vote was close (5-4) with proponents saying the show’s estimated audience of 14.3 million will give Santa Fe worldwide publicity.

But critics question the potential economic impact and the use of taxpayer dollars on a venture that may not come to fruition. The comments pages and letters to the editor accompanying the stories of the city council’s decision have been overwhelmingly negative.

“This is so stupid,” said Santa Fe resident Jill Meyer. “We have so many other needs in Santa Fe.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Despite Obamacare, NM’s high-risk insurance pool stays afloat

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-08-05 16:43

THE POOL IS STILL AFLOAT: Since Obamacare is the law of the land, why does the New Mexico high-risk insurance pool still exist?

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Earlier this year, the board at New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool extended a contract worth up to $600,000 to an Albuquerque consulting group to run the day-to-day operations of the pool, which was designed to offer insurance to people who had trouble getting coverage.

But wasn’t the Affordable Care Act, colloquially called “Obamacare,” supposed to make high-risk insurance pools obsolete?

“I’ve been asking that for two years,” John Franchini, the New Mexico Superintendent of Insurance, said with a laugh. “I do know the federal Affordable Care Act says all these pools should be dissolved. But we have a problem in New Mexico. We have a statute that created the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool and since that statute is active and in place, we have to make sure we don’t violate that.”

Franchini said his office is working on legislation to limit the pool’s population.

There are currently 5,600 patients in the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, Franchini said, compared to about 10,000 at the beginning of last year.

Franchini said he’d like to see the numbers reduced to “no more than 1,000 — that’s my expectation.”

But if the ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying patients with preexisting medical conditions, why does the pool still exist?

“I think the answer is: not every New Mexican can avail themselves of the Obamacare system,” said Gabriel Parra, staff attorney for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the NMMIP board. “We didn’t want to put New Mexicans at risk by kicking them out of the pool and we wanted to do that in a more thoughtful way.”

New Mexico isn’t alone.

According to the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, 35 states had high-risk insurance plans before the ACA went into effect.

Of those, 12 states have eliminated their pools and six are the process of shutting them down, but 17 other states haven’t made any specific plans to drain their pools, so to speak. Click here to see the state-by-state breakdown.

But won’t there come a time when the existence of the pool is superfluous?

“That’s a matter of great debate among the board members,” said board vice chairman Jason Sandel. “Some folks feel like it needs to happen by Dec. 31, 2014. Others feel that, based upon the experience of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, that that period be extended to 2016.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever be down to zero because I think there will always be a few people in transition that are going to need a safety net for a short period of time,” said Franchini in a telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “We have some people in the pool who have no other place to go.”

Examples include those who are under the age of 65 who are buying Medicare supplements through the pool and patients with severe kidney problems that are on dialysis.

There’s also another wrinkle: While those who are in the country illegally cannot sign up under the ACA, there are people who are not U.S. citizens in the New Mexico high-risk pool. That’s because there is no requirement for proof of citizenship, only for residency, to be eligible for the New Mexico plan.

Officials say most of the undocumented patients in the pool are sick children.

“We’re talking about over 200 children,” Franchini said. “We’re looking right now at how we’re going to have that funding source provide these same kind of coverages for these children outside of the pool … They’ll probably end up going to one to four insurance companies that will spread the risk.”

“Historically speaking, there has been no citizenship test to access care through the pool,” said Parra. “How we deal with them is really a question for the Legislature because the statute doesn’t give (the board) the authority … to exclude them.”

The New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool board of directors in March extended its contract with the Delta Consulting Group, based in Albuquerque, to continue managing the operation of state’s high risk pool.

Franchini said the contract pays Delta and its president and executive director of the pool, Debbie Armstrong, up to $600,000 — a $300,000 base package, plus another $300,000 in incentives to bring the numbers in the pool down to what the board considers to be a minimal level.

Not every member of the board thought a contract worth up to $600,000 was appropriate.

“I personally think that it’s a little much,” said Sandel, who voiced concerns over the bonus package. “There’s quite a bit of incentive built into that contract … to move people out of the pool.”

“For me, it really wasn’t an incentive to move them out as it was a recognition that as you move people out it takes work,” Armstrong said.

“The incentive program is a very fair one,” Franchini said. “It saves the medical insurance pool and the state of New Mexico huge amounts of money.”

Franchini said depopulating the pool could translate into savings of $80 million in premiums for insurance companies in the state. “It is very hard to do this work.”

As for the long-term existence of the pool in New Mexico, that’s still up in the air.

“We ought to be thoughtful and predictive on how we depopulate the pool, ” Sandel said. “In other words, that we don’t just hope people leave, that people begin to build an expectation of when it is that their coverage is going to end.”

“Our goal is to get this pool as small as possible as soon as possible,” Franchini said, “and get all those people into Medicaid or the state exchange.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

An MRAP switcheroo for Albuquerque police?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 13:07

MAKING A CHANGE: The Albuquerque Police Department has applied for a $350,000 grant acquire an armored tactical vehicle called the MedCat.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Last week, the Albuquerque Police Department announced it was getting rid of its massive 45,000-pound Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle largely due to concerns over criticism about over-militarization.

But now, APD has disclosed it has already purchased one tactical vehicle and plans on obtaining another.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity about using a military vehicle and we understand those concerns and that’s why we’ve gone into the civilian market,” said Janet Blair, Albuquerque Police Department communications and community outreach director.

Over the weekend, APD told the Albuquerque Journal the department spent $240,000 two weeks ago to buy a bullet-proof skid loader called The Rook that APD will use in situations involving barricaded subjects and bomb threats.

In addition, APD is applying for a $350,000 grant to obtain what’s called a MedCat, an armored vehicle similar to an MRAP that carries medical equipment and will be used to transport SWAT team members. On Monday morning, Blair said she wasn’t sure from where the grant money is coming.

Update 5:51 p.m.: Blair said the money would come from a federal grant but added, “The MedCat is at least several months down the road and there’s no guarantee we’ll get it.” She also emphasized that the tactical vehicles are used for defensive purposes, “for the protection of police and any civilians who need to be rescued or assisted.”

“I think (the MedCat and The Rook) are a much better fit for police,” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said in the Journal article.

ON BOARD: While the Albuquerque Police Department will return its MRAP, it has already spent $240,000 on a bullet-proof skid loader called the Rook.

Is the decision to get rid of the MRAP, only to replace it with two other tactical vehicles, just administrative sleight of hand?

“These are civilian vehicles,” Blair said Monday morning. “Armored? Yes, they’re armored for civilian police use.”

Lifelong Albuquerque resident Linda Klauschie doesn’t see much difference.

“I think they are focusing on the wrong things,” Klauschie told New Mexico Watchdog. “The more aggressive the police approach, the more likely that the person they’re after is going to be aggressive. People react to aggression with aggression.”

APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying APD has a pattern of using excessive force.

Blair said Monday yet another tactical vehicle at APD’s disposal called the BearCat, which dates back to the 1970s, is being overhauled. Once that’s completed, the MRAP will be taken out of commission.

MRAPs have been used by the U.S. military in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But with U.S. involvement in those war zones winding down, the Department of Defense is offering the mammoth vehicles to local police entities through the federal government’s 1033 program that oversees the dispersal of excess military equipment.

That’s led some critics to question whether local police forces are going overboard.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., told New Mexico Watchdog last week. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

New Mexico police chiefs who have obtained MRAPs say the vehicles are useful.

“Being down here in a desert area, along the border, we have a lot of remote areas,” said Brandon Gigante, the chief of police in Deming, population 14,793. “We can offer assistance to agencies like the Border Patrol and help move people out, evacuate or rescue (people) out in the desert (who may be) dehydrated.”

According to records obtained by New Mexico Watchdog, 18 police entities in the state have acquired MRAPs, including the campus police department at New Mexico State University.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Why does ridesharing freak out some regulators?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-04 10:05

THE RIDESHARING DEBATE: Regulators across the country are debating whether to treat ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber the same as taxi cabs.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Economist Matthew Mitchell says ridesharing companies make a lot of sense in places like Albuquerque, N.M., where he was born and grew up.

“There’s limited public transportation there and there are a bunch of drunk 20-year-olds on a typical Friday and Saturday night,” he says with a laugh.

But opponents, including regulators in various locales across the nation, aren’t laughing at all.

They insist companies like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft must abide by the same rules as taxi cab companies and, in some cases, they’re cracking down hard on the startups that use smartphone apps to attract passengers.

Case in point: The City Council in Washington, D.C., not only wanted to heavily regulate ridesharing companies, but proposed making them charge no less than five times what D.C. cab companies charge their customers.

So a $20 fare in a cab would cost a passenger using a ridesharing company at least $100?

“That’s right,” said Mitchell, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “But these companies alerted their tech-savvy customers and within 24 hours, these tech-savvy customers inundated the City Council with about 20,000 complaints. City Council has never had that kind of reaction from anything they’ve ever proposed, and they withdrew their proposal.”

There are other examples.

Why the hard line?

“For some (regulators), they see this as a rule of law issue,” Mitchell said. “They say, hey, this is what the law says, we can’t just ignore the the law.”

But, Mitchell said, there’s something else at play — the concept of what public-choice economists call “regulatory capture.”

“It’s the idea that over time, regulatory bodies often end up seeing the world in much the same way as the industries they are regulating,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t always have to be a nefarious (situation) where the taxi cab companies buy them off. Sometimes it’s just, well, the people you end up interacting with the most are the folks you’re regulating.”

In New Mexico, the Public Regulation Commission is wrestling over what to do as Uber and Lyft break into the Albuquerque market.

On one hand, the PRC has locked horns with Uber and Lyft — and even issued a cease and desist order against Lyft. There’s also been talk of using the New Mexico Department of Public Safety to enforce sanctions, including potential fines up to $10,000 per violation.

On the other hand, the commission also islooking at carving out new rules to allow ridesharing companies to operate in the state.

The PRC’s five commissioners appear divided.

“It’s a new, innovative idea,” said Commissioner Pat Lyons, “Let’s see how it works.”

But Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said ridesharing companies are no different than taxi cabs, limousines and van services.

“I’m all for competition,” she told New Mexico Watchdog, “but our first concern should be with public safety or it’s going to be a free-for-all.”

YOU CAN STILL CATCH A RIDE: Despite opposition from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, two popular ride-sharing services are still operating in Albuquerque.

Neither Lyft nor Uber have received licenses from the PRC, but both companies are operating in Albuquerque. Lyft officials say drivers are taking “donations” when they pick up customers.

“If they want to operate legal, I welcome them,” said Commissioner Ben Hall. “But if you don’t want to operate legal, we don’t want you in our state.”

Ridesharing companies insist they’re entirely different than cab companies.

“Trying to regulate a ridesharing service like Lyft as if it were a taxi service is trying to put a square peg into a round hole,” Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Unlike hailing a cab from the street or calling a limo service and setting up an appointment, ridesharing companies work strictly through the free smartphone apps they offer to customers.

The app allows potential passengers to find the location of nearby drivers, track the length of the trip in distance and time and calculate the cost of a ride. Since the app transfers the fee from the user’s credit card, no cash changes hands.

The drivers are independent contractors and set their own work hours. The companies get paid by getting a percentage of the fares. Lyft, for example, makes 20 percent per transaction.

But cab companies say these are all distinctions without a difference.

“They’re taking people from Point A to Point B and charging them a fare,” said Raymond Sanchez, the former New Mexico speaker of the House, who is an attorney for Yellow Cab Co. of Albuquerque and a regular presence at PRC meetings where the ridesharing debate has gone on for more than two months. “They’re operating illegally. Go by the same rules everybody else is going by.”

One of the PRC lawyers last week cited a report of a ridesharing driver charged with assaulting a passenger in Washington, D.C.

“People are riding at their own risk,” Espinoza said. “The state has a responsibility to protect people.”

The ridesharing companies say their drivers all go through background checks and carry insurance. Lyft drivers carry $1 million primary liability policies, said spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson.

Ridesharing fans accuse critics of simply trying to block out competition and innovation.

“If taxis aren’t competitive with Lyft and Uber, then the obvious thing to do is reform regulations to help them compete, not to force Lyft and Uber to adhere to onerous regulations,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.

While ridesharing companies have been stiff-armed in some locales, they’re getting the green light in others. In the past month, the city of Seattle and the state of Colorado each passed rules allowing the companies to pick up passengers who often employ the companies’ high-tech rating system to instantly evaluate their experiences.

“You’re far from flying blind,” Mitchell said. “You’ll be able to ask 10,000 customers who rated a driver. If you don’t like what you see, you cancel it.”

In essence, the customers become the regulators.

“What they’ve managed to do with this rating system,” Mitchell said, “is provide a regulatory quality assurance that accomplishes what reams and reams regulations and 80 years of state regulations have never been able to achieve.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Pick me! Santa Fe spends taxpayer money to lure ‘The Bachelor’

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-08-01 11:43

MONEY FOR ‘THE BACHELOR’: The City of Santa Fe and the New Mexico Tourism Department may spend up to $150,000 to try to lure the top-rated ABC reality show to the state capital.

 

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — The reality show “The Bachelor” is one of television’s highest-rated shows. But for Santa Fe taxpayers like Jill Meyer, the decision by the Santa Fe City Council to commit between $50,000-$100,000 to try to lure the producers of the show to the state capital is worthy of two thumbs “way down.”

“This is so stupid,” Meyer told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have so many other needs in Santa Fe.”

And a separate pile of money may come from the state.

The New Mexico Tourism Department is considering spending $50,000 of its own money to try to bring the production crew of the show, which features one bachelor choosing a potential wife from a pool of 25 women, to Santa Fe.

There have been reports the Tourism Department has already committed to the project, but Communications Director Rebecca Latham told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday no final decision has been made.

“It’s still being discussed,” Latham said, adding, “There’s a huge potential for national media exposure.”

On Wednesday night, the city council voted 5-4 to approve a request from the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau to commit at least $50,000 and potentially spend another $50,000 to negotiate with the show’s producers, in the hopes of bringing the show to Santa Fe for one season.

Supporters point to the show’s high ratings (14.3 million viewers) as a chance to market New Mexico’s capital city to a worldwide audience.

THE CITY DIFFERENT: Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States.

“I don’t know that there’s anywhere else that we could ever spend $50,000 to get 14.3 million people to look at Santa Fe for an hour,” Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales was quoted saying in the Santa Fe New Mexican, while joining the councilors voting to approve the spending.

The four councilors who voted against the plan didn’t see it that way.

“It’s a terrible show, awful,” said Bill Dimas.

“This is real money,” Councilor Ron Trujillo said Thursday morning. “I’m all for economic development, but I think there are better uses of taxpayer money than spending it on a soap opera. I don’t know why people watch this show … Besides, Santa Fe’s already on a national stage.”

During the debate Wednesday night, Councilor Patti Bushee, who voted for the request, answered Trujillo’s criticism by saying, “Ron, can’t you just imagine the mariachis serenading? The final rose given out on the Plaza? Can you just imagine? The promotion? All of it? The tears? The music?”

But Meyer, a seven-year resident of Santa Fe, points out there’s no guarantee the producers will choose the city, even if up to $150,000 of taxpayer money is spent.

“I know the money in the tourism budget is not necessarily allotted to fixing problems like homelessness,” Meyer said. “But I don’t think people who watch ‘The Bachelor’ will come to Santa Fe … It just seems to be a total waste of money.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Happy birthday, Milton Friedman

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-07-31 09:20

BIRTHDAY BOY: Milton Friedman was one of the most famous advocates for the power and merits of the free market.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Harry Truman once complained he wanted to find a one-handed economist because he was tired of asking a direct question of those on his economic team, only to have them say, “One on the hand … but on the other hand.”

If there was one hand that noted economist Milton Friedman favored, it was the “invisible hand” of the free market.

Thursday marks the 102nd anniversary of Friedman’s birth. He died in 2006, but during his long career Friedman won over admirers (and drove his left-of-center critics crazy) with his direct and eloquent defense of capitalism.

Friedman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976, but perhaps his greatest influence was nudging people — who otherwise may have had little interest in the “dismal science” of economics — to look at the world through a new set of eyes and question some of the assumptions they’d been told.

Here’s a look at some of Friedman’s most notable quotes:

“The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.”

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.”

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

“When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and nobody has a direct interest in maintaining or improving its condition. That is why buildings in the Soviet Union — like public housing in the United States — look decrepit within a year or two of their construction …”

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

On his opposition to the ”war on drugs”: “The government has no more right to tell me what goes into my mouth than it has to tell me what comes out of my mouth.”

And here’s an exchange Friedman had with Phil Donahue in 1979, when the talk show host criticized the free enterprise system:

Donahue: But it seems to reward not virtue as much as ability to manipulate the system.

Friedman: And what does reward virtue? Do you think the communist commissar rewards virtue? Do you think Hitler rewards virtue? Do you think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know, I think you’re taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize society for us.

Finally, one of Friedman’s most famous examples of the power of the market came when he simply held up a pencil:

 

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

The battle over wind farms, dead eagles and a rule by the federal government

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-07-30 08:35

DANGEROUS FLIGHT: The federal government’s decision to give wind energy companies up to a 30-year permit to escape penalties for the deaths of eagles has sparked controversy. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE — Paul Domski is a falconer and a bird lover. And he really doesn’t like wind farms or the federal government’s recent decision to protect wind energy companies for up to 30 years for killing eagles.

“If I was the country’s energy czar I’d get rid of (wind farms),” said Domski, who is also the Mountain Region director of the North American Falconers Association. “From an avian standpoint, from a biological standpoint, they’re a disaster.”

Domski was one of a few dozen people to show up Tuesday night at a “public scoping meeting” on eagle management by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — one of five meetings the agency is hosting across the country to gather comments about possible changes to the agency’s regulations.

One of the hottest topics is the 30-year permit the USFWS approved last December.

“The span of time that a wind project is operational is about 30 years,” Brian Millsap, the USFWS national raptor coordinator told New Mexico Watchdog. “So a five-year permit only covers them for one-sixth of a project’s life.”

Environmentalists are split when it comes to wind farms — embraced by some as a big part of the country’s renewable energy portfolio but disliked by others because of the number of birds that are killed by the turbines spinning in the wind.

“They look like they’re going slow,” Domski said, “but at their tips, they can move as fast as 150-160 miles an hour, and they just kill the birds.”

The actual numbers of birds that are killed each year is hard to determine, but last December, a study published in Biological Conservation estimated between 140,000-328,000 fatal bird collisions each year at wind farms.

In a separate study, federal biologists say at least 85 eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the U.S. since 1997.

While the bald eagle is no longer listed as endangered, killing one still carries a fine up $250,000 and even two years in prison.

That’s why critics of wind farms are upset with the 30-year permit, which allows — in a classic government bureaucratic euphemism — the “non-purposeful take of eagles.”

“These turbines set off currents such that the birds want to use them to fly off of to gain altitude,” Domski said.

The Audobon Society called the 30-year permit “outrageous” and last month the American Bird Conservancy filed a lawsuit in protest.

“It’s a 30-year permit but there are mandatory, at least every five years, checkpoints,” Millsap said.

Wind energy companies, he said, “have to provide us with data we use to predict how many eagles the project will take … If we find out at the end of those five years that our prediction was an underestimate of the actual fatality rate, they will be conditions in that permit that they’ll have to implement to reduce the number of fatalities.”

But how does the agency know the wind farm officials aren’t simply lowballing the numbers?

“The monitoring they do is a condition of their permit,” Millsap said, adding that the USFWS officials have the right to inspect facilities “at any time.”

But Domski is skeptical.

“How do we know they’re not just picking up bird carcasses?” he asked. “And what about energy companies that put up wind farms on private land? They’re not required to report at all.”

In New Mexico, bald eagles can be found in places such as Heron Lake, but golden eagles are much more common.

Ray Powell, the New Mexico state land commissioner, is a big fan of wind farms.

In May, he signed a lease agreement with a wind energy company for a project on 31,000 acres of private land and 19,000 acres of state trust land in Union County, making it the fifth wind project on state land.

“There were some pretty cataclysmic events that occurred when people didn’t think about where they were putting (wind farms),” Powell said. “They put them in the pathways and major flyways, particularly in California, of migratory birds.”

But Powell says the industry has made improvements.

“That doesn’t mean that there still can’t be damage done, but I think people are working really hard to minimize that damage,” Powell said.

Powell said his office does not keep track of the number of birds killed on wind farms on state trust land.

“Strictly from an energy and money point of view, (wind farms are) ineffective,” Domski said. “Their profit margin is so narrow and their lifespan is so short … and in the winter months when it’s cold out and there’s no wind they have to power them to keep them warm, so they use energy.”

After its Albuquerque stop, the USFWS makes two final stops on its five-city scoping tour — in Denver and Washington, D.C. However, the agency will take written comments from the public until Sept. 22.

So if enough people complain about the 30-year permit regulation, will the USFWS change its policy?

“We will look and consider all the comments that we receive,” Millsap said, “but certainly I would expect that if there were a lot of comments concerned about that 30-year permit, it would get a lot of serious attention in the evaluation.”

“It isn’t an either-or situation,” Powell said. “We need the energy, and this is renewable, sustainable energy. We just have to do it the right way and in the right places.”

But Domski has already made up his mind.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, in my opinion, is a puppet organization for the executive branch,” Domski said. “And I’m a Democrat, I voted for Obama but the big push for green energy is not biologically sound and it doesn’t make sense from a carbon point of view. It’s strictly to make it look like we’re doing something positive.”

Here’s part of New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Millsap of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

 

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

It’s official: Albuquerque police gets rid of its MRAP

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-29 12:30

MRAP MOMENTUM: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles like this one in Arizona are becoming commonplace for local police departments but the Albuquerque Police Department is getting rid of its vehicle.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The Albuquerque Police Department‘s MRAP is about to become history.

Chief of Police Gorden Eden decided Wednesday morning to get rid of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, according to Albuquerque Police Department Communications and Community Outreach Director Janet Blair.

“We have other vehicles that perform similar roles,” Blair told New Mexico Watchdog.

Blair didn’t offer more details about the decision, other than saying the MRAP will be returned after repairs are made to other vehicles in the APD fleet. New Mexico Watchdog made a request for an interview with Eden to get more information.

APD is one of nearly 20 New Mexico law enforcement entities that have acquired MRAPs through the federal government’s 1033 program, which allows local agencies to pick up excess military hardware and vehicles from the U.S. Department of Defense at essentially no cost.

In an earlier interview, Blair said APD acquired its MRAP “about six months ago,” but Eden has been thinking about returning it, in part, because, “We have a number of vehicles we use in similar ways so (the MRAP) might be superfluous.”

MRAPs have been the target of criticism across the country from civil liberties advocates who say the mine-resistant vehicles — that weigh up to 30 tons, seat about 20 people and are manufactured at a cost of about $658,000 each — send an overly aggressive message to police and taxpayers they serve.

“It’s a sad symptom of where we are today with the increasing militarization of police departments around the country and the federal government’s insistence on pushing this equipment,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday.

The Albuquerque Police Department has come under intense criticism for overly aggressive police tactics. Since 2010, 27 people have been shot and killed by APD officers.

A New Mexico Watchdog investigation in June showed that 18 law enforcement entities in New Mexico have acquired mine-resistant vehicles. This is the first case of a law enforcement agency announcing it will return one.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Albuquerque police may ditch its MRAP

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-07-29 10:23

GIVE IT BACK?: The Albuquerque Police Department is considering returning its Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. This MRAP was recently acquired by the Los Lunas, N.M. Police Department.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Law enforcement agencies in nearly 20 communities across New Mexico have acquired Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — armored military carriers known as MRAPs — to patrol the streets in towns across the state.

But the police department in New Mexico’s largest city is considering getting rid of its behemoth.

“There are a number of different ways we might to use it, or we could give it back,” Albuquerque Police Department Communications and Community Outreach Director Janet Blair told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have a number of vehicles we use in similar ways so (the MRAP) might be superfluous.”

The federal government created what’s called the 1033 program, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to disperse spare military equipment to local law enforcement agencies that qualify. With overseas military operations winding down in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, there seems to be plenty of equipment to go around.

And for local law enforcement, it’s all essentially free.

“The only cost we incurred was the gas it took to drive it back,” Ruidoso Police Chief Joe S. Magill told New Mexico Watchdog in June of the practically mint-condition MRAP his department picked up in Sealy, Texas. “The cost was zero dollars.”

Law enforcement officials say the bullet-proof MRAPs are useful in armed hostage situations as well as evacuating civilians in emergencies.

But the MRAPs — they weigh up to 30 tons, seat about 20 people and cost about $658,000 each — have been criticized as examples of militarizing local police forces.

“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”

Blair said Albuquerque Chief of Police Gorden Eden is “considering a bunch of different options on the table right now,” including sharing the MRAP with other agencies such as the Albuquerque Fire Department or the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“It’s a heat-resistant vehicle,” Blair said, “and if we had, let’s say, a blowing gas line that exploded, that would be one way to use it.”

Blair said the MRAP was acquired “about six months ago,” before Eden was named APD chief.

APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying that APD has a pattern of using excessive force.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’d like to see APD return the MRAP.

“I think that, at least as a symbolic gesture, it would signal a skepticism about the department’s use of military-grade weaponry and whether it’s actually necessary,” Simonson said.

“Returning it might be the beginning of an acknowledgement that maybe they’ve gone down the road and they’re trying to find their way back,” Lynch said.

Blair said a decision may come within a matter of days.

“We are actively reviewing the uses (of the MRAP) … but there is no final decision yet,” she told New Mexico Watchdog last Friday.

Here’s the list of the 18 law enforcement entities who have MRAPs, according to documents obtained in June by New Mexico Watchdog from the New Mexico Department of Public Safety:

 

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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