"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

‘The Bachelor’ gets $100,000 proposal from New Mexico

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-09-16 08:20

BACHELOR BABE: Chris Soules, the new star of ABC’s “Bachelor” may help put Santa Fe, N.M. on the map.


By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Tourism Department is joining the Santa Fe City Council in the dating pool for the reality TV series, “The Bachelor.”

“We’re really excited,” said Rebecca Latham, communications director for the tourism department, who confirmed Monday that the state agency will pay $50,000 to the show’s producers. In return, the producers agreed to tape a two-hour episode of the show seen on ABC-TV at various locations in the state’s capital city this fall.

The Santa Fe City Council originally committed up to $100,000 for the effort, but Randy Randall, director of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the city won’t pay more than $50,000.

All told, $100,000 in public money from New Mexico will be spent.

“A 30-second ad during ‘The Bachelor’ would run about $200,000 and we really feel it’s a steal to get it at $50,000 in front of a huge prime-time viewership for two hours,” Latham told New Mexico Watchdog.

The $50,000 purchase will not include any commercials promoting New Mexico tourism, but Latham said the exposure makes the expenditure of taxpayers dollars a good investment. The $50,000 will come out of the New Mexico Tourism Department’s $7 million annual advertising budget, Latham said.

Debuting in 2002, the show features one bachelor choosing a potential wife from a pool of 25 women, and culminates with a choreographed ceremony with the husband-to-be offering his choice a red rose. “The Bachelor” is one of ABC’s highest-rated shows, drawing 14.3 million viewers last season.

But the use of taxpayer money, as well as complaints about the show’s content, has drawn plenty of criticism.

“I know the money in the tourism budget is not necessarily allotted to fixing problems like homelessness,” said Santa Fe resident Jill Meyer when news broke of the city council’s attempt to lure the show to what locals call The City Different. “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.”

“We view this as a traditional ad buy,” Latham said. “We’ve got to advertise the state of New Mexico to generate tax income, to get people here to the state. Just like any other advertising is how we view this particular purchase.”


Editorial: Tesla passes on New Mexico, but golden parachutes abound

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-09-08 08:53

Rob Nikolewski. Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican//Clyde Mueller

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

We may not have Tesla, and “Longmire” may have been canceled. But, hey, New Mexico, we still have Hatch chile. And golden parachutes.

Thursday, Tesla Motors honcho Elon Musk announced his electric car company will build its $5 billion battery “giga-factory,” promising to employ 6,500 workers, outside Reno, Nev.

The decision means New Mexico joins three states — California, Arizona and Texas — that lost a bidding war to win the contract. I should use the word “win” advisedly, since it was revealed Nevada will cough up as much as $1.25 billion in tax incentives to claim victory in what some called the “Tesla Bake-Off.” That package of state largesse is unprecedented in size and scope.

But it would be churlish — and economically wrongheaded — to say it was a good thing for Tesla to pass on New Mexico.

The economy badly needs a boost.

“The state has never needed economic-based jobs as bad as they need them right now,” Albuquerque economic development expert Mark Lautman told me just a few days before Musk gave the nod to Nevada. “We’ve got cancer. Our economic base is contracting and … we (need to) do something bold and strategic right now.”

But it was really no surprise Nevada won this five-state, high stakes poker match.

Northern Nevada is just over the state line — a direct shot — from Telsa’s auto plant in Fremont, Calif. Plus, Nevada has no state income tax and a right-to-work law already in place. The Tesla batteries will be made with lithium, and the only lithium mine in the U.S. is just outside of Reno

Throughout the process, Musk was intentionally cryptic when taking about a site. That was a smart move, because it almost led Gov. Jerry Brown of California to enter the sweepstakes. That no doubt forced Nevada and the other states to make more enticing offers.

Politically, Gov. Susana Martinez will take a hit. Her supporters will say it’s unfair, and there’s some truth to that. Opponents from the left criticized the Martinez administration from opposite angles: You’re not doing enough, cried Senate Democrats while, just a few days before the Tesla decision, a group of liberal social welfare organizations chastised states in contention for potentially giving away the store.

But that all comes with the job in the zero-sum game of politics. If the equation were reversed, Republicans would howl, too.

The Tesla announcement came just days after A&E unexpectedly pulled the plug on “Longmire — an excellent TV show that, while set in Wyoming, is filmed in the Santa Fe area. Why? Because its ratings in the 18-49 demographic were low. Sorry, New Mexico, you’re too old, baby.

Meanwhile, one of the big news stories of the summer was a variation on a familiar New Mexico theme.

Outgoing Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks became the latest in a conga line of public sector executives to get golden parachutes.

In fairness, APS defended the $350,000 buyout by saying the district could have been on the hook for $600,000.

But an investigation that led to Brooks’ resignation has been kept secret, even though his buyout is paid with taxpayer dollars. A number of news outlets — including mine —and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government have filed requests under the Inspection of Public Records Act to get some details.. But, thus far, we’ve been rebuffed.

It’s a familiar story. Earlier this year, the outgoing president at Santa Fe Community College received $500,000 to go away.

In October 2012, Barbara Couture left New Mexico State University after receiving a $453,000 agreement.

State Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, who wants to eliminate golden parachutes from state contracts, estimated recent payouts totaling $4.2 million in taxpayer money — not including the $500,000 payout at SFCC.

Yes, it has been a bummer summer.

This commentary originally ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper on Sept. 7, 2014.

Who can be a sheriff in NM? Just about anybody

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-09-01 15:16

REQUIREMENTS, PLEASE: The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association wants to pass legislation requiring county sheriffs to earn law enforcement certifications.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. – Voters may not know it, but just because somebody gets elected as a New Mexico sheriff that doesn’t mean he or she is a certified law enforcement officer.

In fact, they’re not required to pass a law enforcement training course or even demonstrate they know how to safely handle a gun.

“It’s kind of scary when you have persons … with no real qualifications who get voted into office,” said Los Alamos County Sheriff Marco Lucero.

There is no requirement that county sheriffs must complete the 26-week certification and training program that’s administered by the state’s law enforcement academy.

“It’s quite a surprise to a lot of people,” said Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association. “If you get the vote, you can get elected into the job of sheriff.”

The requirements, in fact, are minimal: Candidates must be at least 18 years old with no felony convictions, a resident of New Mexico and a citizen of the United States.

LeVick said he didn’t know how many county sheriffs across the state lack certification.

“A lot of states demand that sheriffs have to be certified and some of them call for sheriffs to get certified after they get elected,” said Fred Wilson, director of operations at the National Sheriffs’ Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Wilson said New Mexico is not alone, “but there is a trend to add law enforcement certification and an education component” for prospective candidates for sheriff’s offices across the country.

“If you’re going in for brain surgery, would you want a sheriff to do it or a brain surgeon? That’s what this is about,” LeVick told New Mexico Watchdog.

But is certification really essential to be a good sheriff?

“We’ve had doctors, undertakers, all kinds of people elected sheriff across the country who didn’t have law enforcement backgrounds,” said Wilson, pointing out that some sheriffs look at the job from an administrative perspective. “It varies from state to state,” Wilson said.

The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association plans on getting legislation introduced in the upcoming 60-day session in Santa Fe that would mandate all sheriffs across the state be certified.

“We want to have professional law enforcement people out there,” LeVick said.

“As an administrator, you should be well-versed in every aspect of your office,” Lucero said. “That means from patrol to civil service to investigations to various divisions within your office. You need to know how they work.”

In fact, when Lucero was elected in 2010, he became the first Los Alamos sheriff who actually held full certification as a law enforcement officer.

Lucero said New Mexico sheriffs who haven’t taken the 26-week certification process often opt to take a two-week crash course at the law enforcement academy that allows them to receive a certification by waiver.

But there is no requirement that sheriffs take the two-week course.

“You can stay uncertified,” LeVick said, adding that means the official cannot carry a gun or make arrests. “Basically, you’re a desk jockey.”

Here’s an odd twist: While sheriffs in New Mexico do not have to be certified, officers under their command do.

That means deputies and other officers must show they’ve passed the certification program at the New Mexico Training and Recruitment Division, which is run by the Department of Public Safety. New hires have one year to complete the program, Lucero said, which includes psychological evaluations, physical fitness requirements and weapons training.

“The lack of any real qualifications for elected sheriffs creates an awkward double standard where the rank and file deputy officers have to meet higher requirements than those they report to,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a think tank based in Santa Fe.

Two years ago, Think New Mexico spearheaded a successful effort to boost the qualifications for candidates for the Public Regulation Commission.

“The public is more than ready for higher qualifications as we found in 2012 when more than 80 percent of New Mexicans voted in favor of the constitutional amendment to require higher qualifications for PRC commissioners,” Nathan said.

Why isn’t there already a certification requirement for sheriffs? Because there’s nothing on the books.

According to Article 7, Section 2 of the New Mexico Constitution, the only requirements to run for elective office is that a candidate is a U.S. citizen, a legal resident of the state and qualifies to vote.

In addition to the newly-enacted PRC requirements, there is one exception: to be New Mexico attorney general, one must be a member of the state bar association.

A quick review by the Legislative Council Service showed no additional requirements for elected office in the state.

For example, there are no requirements for financial expertise for candidates running for state auditor or state treasurer.

Recounting two weeks and five developments in NM sheriff’s controversy

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-09-01 15:13

AS TOMMY TURNS: The controversy over embattled county sheriff Tommy Rodella has taken multiple turns in the space of less than two weeks.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Things are getting down and dirty in Rio Arriba County. They’re also getting murkier.

It’s been less than two weeks since Sheriff Tommy Rodella was arrested and charged in a five-count indictment by federal prosecutors in Albuquerque.

But nearly every day since then, new developments arise:

1. Tommy Jr. off the hook

On Wednesday morning, prosecutors announced they’re dismissing charges against Rodella’s son, Tommy Jr., saying the younger Rodella “has a medical condition that puts into doubt whether he has the cognitive ability to form the specific intent necessary to prove the charges against him beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t go into detail, but attorneys for the Rodellas told reporters at a news conference Wednesday the younger Rodella suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Kosovo in the military.

Then they blasted prosecutors.

“There was no case. There was no case from the beginning. There is no case. And it took them arresting a man, putting him jail, putting him through what he’s been through, then later looking through critical records that the grand jury saw to dismiss the case,” Rodella Jr.’s attorney, Jason Bowles, said.

2. Hell no, I won’t go

On Aug. 21, the Rio Arriba County Commission, in a 3-0 vote, called on Sheriff Rodella to resign, saying the federal charges and a decision by the head of the state’s law enforcement academy to suspend Rodella’s law enforcement certification undercut his ability to lead the sheriff’s office. They called on Rodella to quit by the close of the business day Tuesday.

But the deadline came and went, and Rodella did not resign.

New Mexico Watchdog contacted the head of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association asking whether the organization was joining the chorus calling for Rodella to step down.

But executive director Jack LeVick said the sheriffs association is not getting involved.

“He could be totally innocent,” LeVick said. “We’ll let the courts and the judicial system handle it.”

When the county commissioners called on Rodella to resign, their letter was forwarded to the Governor’s Office, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the state district attorney responsible for Rio Arriba County.

“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,” commissioner Barney Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog.

But on Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office said it won’t weigh in.

“The AG’s policy has always been not to discuss matters that are being handled by other jurisdictions,” spokesman Phil Sisneros said in an email. “That is primarily to avoid any conflicts should the case eventually come before the (attorney general’s office). As of today, there are no plans to become involved.”

Messages left with the office of Gov. Susana Martinez and District Attorney Spence Pacheco went unreturned.

3. Take that!

Rodella’s office is apparently trying to turn the tables on the Rio Arriba County officials who want him out.

After the commissioners signed the letter calling for Rodella to quit, New Mexico Watchdog went to the sheriff’s office to get a comment from Rodella.

Rio Arriba Undersheriff Vince Crespin said Rodella was not in. Crespin read a copy of the letter, made his own copy and referred New Mexico Watchdog to the county’s public information officer. The letter listed 11 examples of what the commissioners said was Rodella’s “substandard performance.” Click here to read the three-page letter.

Shortly after New Mexico Watchdog left the sheriff’s office, the Albuquerque Journal reported Crespin approached the county’s assistant manager, saying the sheriff’s office was conducting an investigation and three county officials needed “to make themselves available” for it.

The officials accused Rodella of trying to intimidate them.

But on Tuesday, the chief of the New Mexico State Police told the Santa Fe New Mexican he has ordered an investigation into Rio Arriba County officials for alleged fraud and embezzlement.

Commissioner Trujillo did not return a phone call by New Mexico Watchdog on Tuesday. But, moments after the commission called for Rodella’s resignation, when asked if he feared any retribution, Trujillo said, “As long as I’m staying on the right track I think I’ll be OK … I know Rio Arriba County gets a black eye in some people’s minds, but this is a great place.”

4. CSI, Española

In yet another development, documents show prosecutors are looking into DNA evidence that may be tied to Rodella’s badge.

The entire case against Rodella centers on a vehicle chase involving the Rodella, his son and a 26-year-old Española motorist in March.

Rodella — not in uniform and riding in his personal, unmarked vehicle — was traveling with Tommy Jr. The Rodellas say they pulled over the motorist and arrested him for driving dangerously.

The motorist contends the Rodellas chased him down and the sheriff lunged at him with a gun. The 26-year-old said he feared for his life and, when he asked the elder Rodella to see his badge, Rodella said, “Here’s my badge, mother(bleep)” and allegedly shoved the badge into the driver’s cheek.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the just-released documents reveal the FBI was searching for Rodella’s badge to test it for DNA. According to an affidavit, a booking photo of the motorist showed “a reddish, swollen area under his right eye.”

But at Wednesday’s news conference, the elder Rodella’s lawyer scoffed at the story.

“Did (prosecutors) present the information where (the motorist) said he never was injured? Did they present the FBI DNA analysis, which completely refutes his assertion that a badge was used as a weapon to scar his face? No, none of that happened,” said attorney Robert Gorence.

5. Trial coming soon

Rodella’s trial has been set for Sept. 22 in federal court in Albuquerque.

Rodella insists he’s innocent. “I’m not going anywhere,” Rodella said four days after a judge released him on his own recognizance.

Gorence has accused U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon P. Martinez of having a vendetta against Rodella.

Rodella’s lawyers 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.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t comment on the accusation.

After Rodella and his son were released by a federal judge Aug. 15, some members of the Rodella family wore T-shirts that said, “When Injustice Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty.”

But even if acquitted, Rodella’s term as sheriff will end Dec. 31 because he lost his bid for re-election in June. In the Democratic primary, James Lujan defeated Rodella by 200 votes. Lujan is a former deputy fired by Rodella. There is no Republican running in the general election.

Rio Arriba County has a long history of political hardball, but this latest chapter is shaping up to be one of epic proportions.

“I hope it never gets to a level of vindictiveness,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog last week.

It looks like he spoke too soon.


Still no word why Albuquerque school boss received a $350,000 settlement

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-27 15:00

MUM’S THE WORD: 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

Why Winston Brooks stepped down as superintendent of New Mexico’s largest school district remains a mystery.

The custodian of records at Albuquerque Public Schools turned back Tuesday the initial part of a request filed separately from New Mexico Watchdog and the New Mexico Foundation of Open Government to obtain details about the $350,000 taxpayer-funded buyout the school district worked out for Brooks.

APS hired a law firm to conduct an investigation into what the school board described only as a “serious personnel issue” concerning Brooks that led to the settlement.

Responding to Inspection of Public Records Act requests from New Mexico Watchdog and NMFOG, APS records custodian Rigo Chavez said APS Board of Education President Analee Maestas was approached about disclosing more details and “responded that the only investigation conducted by the Butt Thornton and Baehr law firm involves a personnel matter. Therefore, your request is denied.”

Lawyer-client privilege was also cited.

Chavez said APS is still looking into New Mexico Watchdog and NMFOG requests to see emails and documents regarding Brooks, his wife Ann Brooks and any communications with school board members regarding the investigation and subsequent agreement.

“I have asked the APS Board of Education Office and the APS Information Technology Department for any communications and will let you know within the 15 days allowed by the Act of any documents located,” Chavez said in the email to New Mexico Watchdog.

After Brooks turned in his resignation Aug. 15, the only comment from the school board came from Maestas, who restricted her comments to saying that “both (Brooks and the board) agree that this decision is the best option for APS at this time.”

Furthermore, the agreement said the investigation into the “serious personnel issue” will be kept “in a file separate from Brooks’ personnel file, and it shall not be released to anyone.”

Susan Boe, executive director at NMFOG, reiterated Wednesday her organization’s opinion that information about Brooks settlement should be made public.

“FOG believes there is information in that report that is factual in nature and is not exempt” under the personnel exemption in the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, Boe said.

In addition, Ann Brooks is mentioned a number of times in the settlement agreement. But Ann Brooks is not an employee of APS.

“Clearly she does not fall under the personnel exemption,” Boe said.

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

How much should NM invest in new companies?

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-08-27 14:57

BATTLING OVER PERCENTAGES: The New Mexico State Investment Council and a business organization are fighting over the amount given to New Mexico startups.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – How much taxpayer money should New Mexico invest in nascent companies?

The State Investment Council says $40 million per year is about right, but the head of the Association of Commerce and Industry of New Mexico wants nearly double that.

“New Mexico needs to believe in itself and we need to invest in ourselves,” said ACI executive director Beverlee McClure, who says the SIC, by not investing more in statewide businesses, “is not believing in New Mexico companies.”

“I would respectfully disagree with her take on that,” SIC spokesman Charles Wollmann said.

The SIC has a Private Equity Investments Program that allows the council to take money from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund and give it to New Mexico-based businesses in the early stage of development.

The amount deducted is capped at 9 percent — about $425 million.

But the SIC is not required to use the entire 9 percent. The council has decided to invest 5 percent on New Mexico startups and early-stage companies, about $40 million per year.

“We’re not even meeting the cap by their choice,” said McClure, who wants to see the SIC invest the full 9 percent.

An SIC advisory committee conducts a vetting process to determine which companies are worthy of taxpayers’ dollars.

According to the minutes of a May 8 meeting, committee chairwoman Linda Eitzen mentioned “limited numbers of quality companies in New Mexico and expressed concerns about exposure issues.”

“We just don’t believe that,” McClure told New Mexico Watchdog. “We believe there are quality companies here and this is our tax dollars, and we believe it should be invested (in New Mexico).”

But Wollmann countered by saying some 45 New Mexico companies are part of the private equity portfolio, and they employ about 1,300 people across the state.

In past, the SIC — i.e., New Mexico taxpayers — was burned by shaky private equity investments.

“The first 10 years of this program was a dismal failure,” Wollmann said. “They pushed money out the door trying to catalyze the venture community here.”

For example, the Private Equity Investments Program racked up returns of minus-18 percent between 1994 and 2004.

Since then, Wollmann said, the program improved, turning in 4 percent annualized returns.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility as council members to gain a return on the fund,” said SIC board member Leonard Lee Rawson. “And we’re still guarded as to whether or not the New Mexico Private Equity investments are going to generate the return that we have an obligation to produce.”

“I do think there’s another part of the mission” at the SIC, McClure said. “That mission is to invest in New Mexico companies and create New Mexico jobs.”

But Rawson says the No. 1 job for the SIC is making money for the state’s taxpayers.

“We are charged as fiduciaries not as economic development folks,” said Rawson. “Beverlee looks at it as economic development. We have to look at it (as), can we get a return that’s close to what we need to get? … We can’t continue to invest in a loss at 18 percent just for jobs.”

“The more money this fund makes the more money we contribute to the general fund and to school operations budgets every year,” Wollmann said.

“All we’re saying is, there’s got to be a balance in there somewhere,” McClure. “So instead of saying, no New Mexico companies qualify because we had some that did not perform well, there should be a better balance in investing in New Mexico companies.”

In addition to the Private Equity Investment Fund there’s requirement 1 percent of the Severance Tax Permanent Fund go to the Small Business Investment Council, which specializes in New Mexico companies.

“When you take the 5 percent (invested in the Private Equity Investments Fund) and the 1 percent in the SBIC, you’re really talking about 6 percent out there,” Rawson said.

“We (as a state) put them in an awkward position in that we’re saying two things to them,” McClure said. “We say, use this money to invest in us and create New Mexico jobs. And, oh by the way, you’ve also got to make money for the fund. We don’t see those two things as competing. But it appears that the current State Investment Council and the current advisory committee does see that as a conflict,” McClure said.

“Financial returns need to be the first focus,” Wollmann said. “We’ve seen what happens from the first 10 years of this program when you don’t make financial returns the priority … If you want to have a policy debate, that’s really for the Legislature.”

Gomez wins, Garcia loses in hearing over disputed election

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-08-25 16:02

JUST 16 VOTES: A district judge refused to overturn a close election that saw incumbent state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, left, lose by 16 votes to challenger Bill Gomez.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It looks like Mary Helen Garcia‘s 18-year run at the Roundhouse may be over.

A district court judge on Friday refused to throw out disputed absentee ballots in House District 34 race that saw challenger Bill Gomez edge past Garcia by 16 votes in the June Democratic Party primary.

“The outcome of the election is not overturned,” 3rd Judicial District Judge Jim Martin ruled after hearing a day of testimony.

Since there is no Republican in the District 34 race, the road is clear for Gomez to take the seat when the state Legislature convenes its upcoming 60-day session in January.

“We won, that’s all I have to say,” Gomez told New Mexico Watchdog by telephone shortly after the verdict was announced. “We’ll have a press release tomorrow morning.”

New Mexico Watchdog was unable to reach Garcia, a retired teacher who is an influential member of the House on education issues since being elected in 1996, but Chris Saucedo, Garcia’s attorney, said they’ll appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

But time is running out. Doña Ana County officials say they need to print the ballots for November by Sept. 2.

At issue Friday were more than 40 absentee ballots cast in two precincts in Sunland Park, a town inside Doña Ana County that has a rich reputation for political controversy.

Garcia claimed that a number of the absentee ballots were fraudulently cast and a hand-writing expert testified on Garcia’s behalf Friday, questioning the validity of many of the signatures on the ballots.

Garcia lost the absentee balloting in the two Sunland Park precincts to Gomez, 82-8, so if the judge decided to throw out at least 17 of the votes, Garcia would win.

But by the end of a hearing that took the entire day, Martin said he was persuaded by depositions from voters who insisted they had indeed signed the ballots.


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.”


“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.


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:


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.


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


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.


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

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