"Capitol Report New Mexico" Latest Blog Postings

NM judges get a pay raise … from other judges

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-06-11 15:06

PAY HIKE: A special panel of the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that judges in the state — including Supreme Court justices — will get a 5 percent raise.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It was a complicated case but in the end, a specially selected panel of the New Mexico Supreme Court gave judges throughout the state a 5 percent pay raise.

Included in that group getting the pay hike? The justices of the Supreme Court.

“I want to acknowledge the somewhat extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the case, Justice Richard Bosson said upon announcing a unanimous decision Wednesday morning over a dispute about a line-item veto issued by Gov. Susana Martinez earlier this year.

It was an unusual case, that’s for sure.

In one corner was Albuquerque attorney Ray Vargas, representing a group that included state court judges who wanted an 8 percent pay raise — a 5 percent bump for judges that was part of the state budget passed earlier this year, plus a 3 percent increase for all state employees.

In the other corner was Jessica Hernandez, the general counsel for Martinez, who argued the two separate raises couldn’t be divided. Therefore, the governor’s office argued, the entire pay raise package was no good.

Complicating things? The fact that the state Supreme Court justices — just as all judges across the state — would benefit from the pay raise, if upheld.

Adding to any appearance of a potential conflict of interest was the fact that Martinez administration said Justice Petra Jiminez Maes personally lobbied the governor’s office during the legislative session to give judges across the state a raise.

But if the state Supreme Court didn’t hear the case, who could?

It was decided that four of the five members of the high court would recuse themselves, leaving Bosson as acting chief justice. He was joined Wednesday by four recently retired judges — former Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna, former Court of Appeals Judges A. Joseph Alarid and Celia Foy Castillo and former state District Judge James Hall.

In arguments that lasted an hour and nine minutes, Vargas contended Martinez was distorting the intent of the what lawmakers passed. “What the governor is attempting to do is step on the toes of the Legislature,” he said.

Hernandez countered by saying the Legislature didn’t make itself clear. “In the end, if the Legislature wants to give the judiciary a raise, it has to put it on the table … It’s not OK to hide the ball,” Hernandez said.

After deliberating for just under an hour, the judges ruled that the 3 percent raise was out but the across-the-board 5 percent raise for judges was in.

“We regard this as two appropriations,” Bosson said. “Therefore, the pay raises will go into effect.”

“We’re pleased with the ruling,” Vargas said. “Obviously, it’s not everything that we asked for but it was appropriate, soundly reasoned and fair for all.”

Hernandez worried the decision may increase friction between the Legislature and the executive branch, as well as opening the door for potential special sessions of the Legislature, which taxpayers pay for. “If legislators and the governor have to try to speculate about what language courts may read into a statute, it will cost the taxpayers more money,” Hernandez said.

Regardless of the legal issues addressed Wednesday, the fact remains that state Supreme Court justices are included in the group getting a raise — including Bosson, acting as the hearing’s presiding judge.

“You can also argue that four people who had absolutely no dog in this fight and it was unanimous,” Vargas said, “and I think the court did the right thing,”

“Justice Bosson, you’re right, stayed on (the case) and today issued a ruling that gives himself a 5 percent pay raise,” Hernandez said.

Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of each attorney after the ruling Wednesday morning:

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

Rolling through a town near you: Cops driving mine-resistant vehicles

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-10 16:20

MRAP NATION: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles like this one in New Mexico are quickly moving from the battlefield into the hands of local law enforcement agencies.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — For years, they’ve been used as armored vehicles for U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles are now being operated by law enforcement agencies across the country and don’t be surprised to see them patrolling the streets in towns across New Mexico.

In fact, many of the armored vehicles that weigh up to 30 tons and cost about $658,000 are here now.

New Mexico Watchdog filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and learned that nearly 20 law enforcement agencies across the state — from the biggest city to some of the smallest — have received MRAPs.

Even the campus police department at New Mexico State University applied for, and received, an MRAP.

How does a vehicle designed originally to fight the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents end up on the streets of, say, Bloomfield — population 7,968?

Because the federal government has created what’s called the 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to essentially give away spare military equipment to local law enforcement agencies that qualify.

In the past, the inventory available for local police departments consisted of old military weaponry, Humvees and, in special circumstances, a used helicopter.

But with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, and sequestration cuts, the 1033 program has offered police departments the bullet-proof, diesel-powered vehicles that run on four-to-six wheels, seat up to 20 people and are fast enough to comfortably zoom on the freeway.

The specially designed MRAPs were produced to protect American troops from improvised explosive devices planted by enemy combatants in places like Fallujah and Kandahar.

“The only cost we incurred was the gas it took to drive it back,” Ruidoso Police Chief Joe S. Magill told New Mexico Watchdog of the practically mint-condition MRAP the Ruidoso Police Department picked up a little more than a month ago from a base in Sealy, Texas. “The cost was zero dollars.”

The situation is not unique to New Mexico. Across the country, states have 1033 state coordinators who work with law enforcement divisions and the federal government to get the inventory.

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

Deming is one of 18 communities in New Mexico that received an MRAP, according to documents obtained by New Mexico Watchdog:

But not everyone is happy with the sight of an MRAP coming down a city street.

Civil libertarians worry about the potential for abuse. Fiscal conservatives complain about the hidden costs of the 1033 program.

The rollout of an MRAP in South Carolina prompted one critic to write, “Though the vehicle was ‘free’ (it was) purchased by taxpayer money. Five-hundred surplus military vehicles costing $658,000 each adds up to $329 million of surplus (Department of Defense) spending on vehicles which are so unnecessary to the military they are being given away to American cities. Though this wouldn’t fix the debt, it is yet another multi-million dollar piece of wasteful spending by the American federal government.”

PROTECTION OR INTIMIDATION?: Even relatively small communities, such this one in Los Lunas, N.M., are picked up MRAPs.

Earlier this year, the Hobbs Police Department came under fire for broadcasting a TV advertisement that aired across the state featuring aggressive police tactics and the department’s MRAP turning a corner to the sound of pulse-pounding music.

“It’s kind of disturbing, the way they play up these militaristic tactics,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “It seemed more like they were looking for people who wanted to join the Army instead of a police department.”

But Ruidoso’s chief, Magill, said he jumped at the chance to get an MRAP.

“We here in Ruidoso have had several natural disasters,” Magill said, pointing to a large flood in 2008 and three wildfires, including the Little Bear Fire that destroyed more than 240 homes. “Because of those natural disasters, I thought this vehicle would be a great vehicle to provide us a mobile command post.”

Los Lunas is home to one of the smallest communities equipped with an MRAP. Police Chief Naithan Gurule said the vehicle potentially saved lives when a domestic violence call in May escalated and a suspect fired an estimated 70 rounds from his house.

“We used the MRAP, first to rescue four officers across the street who were having to take cover behind, you know, regular cars,” Gurule said. “Also, the neighbors were rescued using the MRAP.”

The thought of an MRAP on a college campus may seem a bit alarming, but New Mexico State University Chief of Police Stephen Lopez said the armored vehicle his department picked up two months ago will be used for emergency situations, and not for SWAT teams.

“That’s very understandable,” Lopez said about critics of civilian use of MRAPs. “But I will point out that in the North Hollywood shooting (in 1997), officers were left to appropriate an armored vehicle from a bank … That took an hour. As we saw in Columbine (High School in Colorado), if you lose an hour, some people don’t make it.”

In the month since the MRAP has arrived at Ruidoso, Magill said the vehicle is getting a fresh coat of black paint and is being readied to hit the streets.

“I know in some communities they catch a little flak because (they’re accused of having) the government militarize the police,” Magill said in a telephone interview. “It is not going to have a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in it. It is not going to have a bazooka on it. We’re going to use it for police purposes. We’re putting radios in it. We’re putting maps in it. We’re putting dry boards in it so we can use it effectively for emergencies.”

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

Six months after NM cavity search case, half the cops still on job

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-09 16:51

STILL ON THE JOB: Two members of the Deming, N.M., police department and one member of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office cited in a $1.6 million lawsuit are still on the job.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — Half the officers involved in an anal cavity search of a man wrongly suspected of carrying drugs are still on the job, a New Mexico Watchdog investigation shows.

Three officers for the Deming Police Department were never even disciplined.

Two of the three officers in Deming remain on the job, documents obtained through Inspection of Public Records Act requests reveal. One of the three officers in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office is still working for the county.

The officers were listed in a lawsuit filed by David Eckert, a Lordsburg, resident, who, officers thought, was carrying drugs. In January, Eckert received a $1.6 million settlement, with the city of Deming paying Eckert $950,000 and Hidalgo County, $650,000.

“If officers are not fired for this level of abuse, particularly after such a huge settlement in damages, it sends a rather chilling message,” legal scholar Jonathan Turley told New Mexico Watchdog earlier this year. “It suggests that there is no abuse that will cost an officer his or her job.”

In January 2013, Eckert was pulled over by Deming cops for allegedly failing to make a complete stop in a Walmart parking lot in Deming. Hidalgo County sheriff’s officers were there, too.

Authorities suspected Eckert was carrying drugs inside his anal cavity and over a 14-hour period subjected Eckert to two rounds of X-rays and three enemas. They then took him to a hospital in Silver City — in another county — where Eckert was forced to undergo a colonoscopy. No drugs were found and Eckert was later charged $6,000 for the hospital bill.

Officials at the Deming Police Department and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office have refused to comment.

“That is a personnel matter,” Deming Police Chief Brandon Gigante said.

But after filing IPRA requests about the case, New Mexico Watchdog received documents from Deming and Hidalgo County.

The $1.6-million lawsuit listed three Hidalgo County Sheriff ‘s officers — Robert Rodriguez, Patrick Green and David Arrendondo — involved in the Eckert incident. But in the records obtained by New Mexico Watchdog, only Arrendondo is now listed as a sheriff’s office employee.

Deming Police Officers Bobby Orosco, Robert Chavez and Maricela Hernandez were listed in the original lawsuit.

An attorney for the City of Deming, Jim Foy, said in a letter to New Mexico Watchdog that Orosco and Chavez are still employed by the Deming Police Department — Orosco as a captain and Chavez as a patrolman — while Hernandez is not. The letter failed to elaborate.

In addition, Foy wrote, “be advised that none of these officers were disciplined for matters involving the David Eckert case.”

Hidalgo County officials would not disclose whether any of their officers were disciplined, claiming that such information doesn’t have to be disclosed because “they are considered matters of opinion in personnel files.”

That’s a subject of debate, with a member the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government legal panel saying, “discipline is not a matter of opinion.”

In his letter to New Mexico Watchdog, Foy elaborated on some of the details of the case.

“Given the uncertainty of any outcome and cost of litigation, both sides Eckert and the City of Deming mutually agreed to settle Eckert’s claim against the City of Deming each agreeing that the City of Deming was doing so without admitting any wrong doing,” Foy’s letter to New Mexico Watchdog said.

Foy also included a letter he wrote to the local paper, the Deming Headlight, in which he described the Eckert case as “a systemic failure.”

At the same time, Foy said, “The line officers in question followed all policies and procedures in place at the time.”

Foy’s letter contends the incident was complicated.

“It was not as though Deming Police Officers grabbed Mr. Eckert and unilaterally took him to Silver City for a series of anal cavity searches,” the letter reads.

Foy wrote that the Deming police “relied upon information from an out of county” police expert who said a drug-sniffing canine indicated the presence of narcotics on Eckert’s car seat. Plus, “this police expert” told the cops that Eckert had a history drug trafficking and “was known to carry narcotics in his anal cavity.”

Furthermore, Foy pointed out the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office signed off on a warrant to OK an anal cavity search.

“At present, the Assistant District Attorney who prepared and presented the affidavit in support of the search warrant is no longer working for the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office,” Foy’s letter said.

“The Chief of Police, who at the time was unaware until the following day of the anal cavity search has retired and a new chief of police has been appointed subsequent to this unfortunate event. With a new chief of police in place, the City of Deming has implemented new policies and procedures and is continuing to implement new polices and procedures so this type of event will never happen again.”

Click here to read the copy of the $1.6 million settlement with Eckert.

And here’s the response to New Mexico Watchdog’s IPRA request from the city of Deming’s attorney, as well as the attorney’s interpretation of some of the details of the case:

IPRA 5-30-14 Rob Nikolewski request for Deming documents by Rob Nikolewski

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

Seventy years on: Remembering D-Day

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-06-05 20:55

STORMING THE BEACH: Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Photo by the National Archives.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It was the largest land, air and sea operation before or since June 6, 1944.

And its success hinged on a weather forecast.

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the historic assault by Allied forces on the windswept beaches of Normandy.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history understands its significance: The remarkably well-coordinated operation that transported soldiers and military vehicles under intense German fire eventually led to victory in the European Theater and World War II.

But the passage of time often obscures the risks involved.

Had D-Day had failed and the element of surprise been lost, the Nazi war effort would have been given new life. The result, as author John Ross argues, might have been the Soviet Union eventually taking control of the European continent.

It almost certainly would have meant more dying in concentration camps like Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

The weather on the French coastline in early June was terrible.

With rain pouring down for days, Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, agonized over the decision to go ahead with Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion.

Any delay would have pushed the invasion back to at least June 19, due to tides and logistics. Eisenhower might have been forced to call things off until the following year.

It was his chief weatherman, predicting a break in the weather that would last about 36 hours, who spurred Eisenhower to tell his generals and admirals, “Okay, let’s go.”

Eleven years after Normandy, Eisenhower’s brother, Milton, invited the president of the United States to give a graduation speech:

“In the spring of 1955, when I was president of Penn State, Ike was the commencement speaker. As the time for the outdoor ceremony approached, storm clouds formed.

“I was distressed at the possibility of moving the commencement to an indoor facility that was too small to accommodate all of the guests.

“When I asked my brother for advice, he said, ‘Milton, I haven’t worried about the weather since June 6, 1944.’ ”

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

Mora County’s controversial fracking ban may be in jeopardy

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-06-05 07:43

FRACKING BAN IN JEOPARDY: A controversial ordinance in a small New Mexico county banning hydraulic fracturing is up in the air after proponents lost in local elections.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

A primary election in a small New Mexico county could have a big effect on one of the country’s most restrictive bans on hydraulic fracturing.

In fact, Mora County’s controversial law could go away altogether.

“I think the ordinance needs to be rescinded,” said George Trujillo, who won the Democratic primary in for a seat on the Mora County Commission in a landslide — 59.7 percent to 34.2 percent — over John Olivas, who spearheaded the fracking ban as commission chairman.

The ordinance, which passed on a 2-1 vote last year, has led to lawsuits from the energy industry opposed to the ban and help from environmental organizations that support it.

The pending legal proceedings could expose Mora County, one of the state’s poorest, to court costs.

“Taxpayers having to pay for the lawsuits, that’s what bothered me,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog on Wednesday, the day after the primary. “I feel we need to repeal that ordinance and go other routes.” Trujillo has no Republican opposition in November and will take office Jan. 1.

Paula Garcia was the sole commissioner who voted against the anti-fracking ordinance; she received 76 percent of the vote Tuesday night over a Democrat who staunchly favors the ban.

Garcia will face Republican Tim Fresquez in the general election in November, and she’s considered a heavy favorite in a county where Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

When asked if the combination of her victory and Trujillo’s might mean the ordinance could be overturned, Garcia said, “It’s early to be speculating about that at this time.”

As to how the election results could affect the lawsuits, Garcia said, “That’s really a question I wouldn’t be able to answer without some legal consultation.”

Garcia has long insisted she opposes fracking, but when the ban passed she worried the ordinance and its attendant legal issues put the county at financial risk.

“There’s a very strong sentiment (among voters) that this is a very special place and we have to protect it,” Garcia said in a telephone interview. “They want to have safeguards that are checked and being upheld by the courts.”

The commission’s third member, Alfonso Griego, is not up for re-election until 2016. He voted for the ordinance.

Trujillo said he did not run for commissioner because of the fracking ban — “There are other issues in the county to take care of,” he said — but acknowledges it’s a hot topic for the fewer than 5,000 people who live in Mora County.

“I’m here to protect our water and our land,” Trujillo said, adding that he’s open to the idea of a limited amount of drilling in the eastern edge of the county, which is in the northern part of the state.

Other communities across the country have passed fracking bans, but one of the things than makes Mora’s Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance ordinance different is it gives the local government the power to permanently make the entire county’s 1,933 square miles off-limits to hydraulic fracturing — something critics say eradicates private property rights.

The ordinance also bans citizens as well as corporations from extracting “oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within Mora County.”

Mora County, New Mexico

That debate has prompted two federal lawsuits against the county: one filed by property owners and the Independent Petroleum Association New Mexico and another by Shell Western E&P, a subsidiary of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

The lawsuits claim the county is exceeding its authority and wants the court to overturn the ordinance. In addition, the IPANM suit wants the county to pay legal fees while Shell seeks both legal fees and damages for lost revenue.

While there is no drilling in Mora County now, the State Land Office has executed 122 leases.

Commissioner Olivas, who is also a community organizer with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in Pennsylvania, to help pass the ban.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center is defending the county in the IPANM case, but the financial uncertainty surrounding the litigation put Mora County voters on edge.

“I know it’s going to be an issue, and all three commissioners are going to have to sit down and work on something that will really protect the water and the land and the air,” Trujillo said. “It’s common sense to me, but the lawsuits bother me and it bothers a lot of people.”

“It’s not only about the uncertainty and the costs that could come about as a result of lawsuits,” Garcia said, “but it’s my view that the laws that we do enact should have a good chance of being upheld by the courts. That’s my primary concern here.”

Two phone call to Olivas, ousted after one term on the commission, went unreturned.

Update: Karin Foster, the executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico told New Mexico Watchdog on Friday that under the provisions of the anti-fracking ordinance that the Mora County Commission passed last year, it would take a unanimous vote from the commission to get a repeal on the ballot. Plus, the ballot measure would then need two-thirds majority from Mora County residents in order to take it off the books.

However, when asked if Mora County commissioners could simply withdraw from the two pending lawsuits, Foster acknowledged that could be a potential avenue for the commission to take.

“But I think they the easiest way (to reverse the ban) is to have a court or a judge to say they whole thing is unconstitutional,” Foster said.

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

Weh beats Clements going away, takes on Udall next

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-03 23:30

WINNING BIG: Allen Weh (left) greets a voter Tuesday night. The Marine Corps veteran won the Republican primary handily over David Clements. Photo from the Weh campaign.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – What started as a potential battle to see which direction the Republican Party in New Mexico was heading didn’t turn out very close after all.

Allen Weh, a well-known figure in New Mexico politics and considered — for lack of a better term — the “conventional” Republican, easily outdistanced David Clements, running for the first time and considered a libertarian Republican in the mold of Rand Paul, to win the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.

The 71-year-old Weh now takes on Democrat Tom Udall, who is running for re-election, in November.

“This election is going to be a referendum on jobs,” Weh said in a statement. “In 25 years as a career politician, Tom Udall hasn’t done a thing to bring a job or save a job in New Mexico. But I will. Neither has he done anything to strengthen our national defense. And I intend to change that as well.”

As of 11:18 p.m., Weh led Clements 62.9 percent to 37.0 and was declared the winner by media outlets as early as 8:30 p.m.

“While I may have come up short tonight, the grassroots of this party has demonstrated that we will not automatically accept any Republican candidate, and that voters desperately want someone who will fight for limited government and the message of individual liberty,” Clements said in a statement.

A former state party chairman, Weh came into the race with greater name recognition and deeper pockets. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Weh had $583,372 in campaign money while the 34-year-old Clements had $40,578.

But back in March, at the state GOP pre-primary convention, Clements came within six points of Weh among Republican delegates. That led to speculation that Weh was vulnerable but on Tuesday night, the 38-year Marine Corps colonel and CEO of CSI Aviation in Albuquerque won without breaking much a sweat.

The campaign between Weh and Clements was pointed, with Clements complaining that Weh refused to take part in debates while the Weh campaign pointed out missteps in the Clements campaign, such as Clements sending out a news release claiming to have an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association when he had not. Clements called it a “flub.”

In his statement Tuesday night, Clements said he would “work to see that Republicans up and down the ticket are successful this November” but did not mention Weh.

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

It’s Gary King vs. Susana Martinez in NM governor’s race

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-03 22:17

THE WINNER: Attorney General Gary King won the Democratic primary for New Mexico governor. Photo by Rob Nikolewski

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – He’s been criticized by some members of his own party as boring and unable to defeat incumbent Republican Gov. Susana Martinez but New Mexico Attorney General Gary King won the Democratic primary Tuesday night — and he won it pretty handily.

By 9:30 p.m., major media outlets and polling guru Brian Sanderoff had declared King the winner in a five-person free-for-all.

Here were the numbers from the New Mexico Secretary of State’s website at 10:04 p.m.:

Despite finishing in last place in the Democratic pre-primary convention back in March, with just 10.51 percent of the delegates voting for him, King collected more than enough signatures from registered Democrats to get on the ballot and on Tuesday night, the son of one of the most popular governors in New Mexico history — Bruce King — came out on top.

“I appreciate the voters of New Mexico showing confidence in us,” King told supporters in Albuquerque. “The real hard part of the race starts tomorrow morning. We know there is work to be done … We as Democrats will work together … We’re going to stand together for families, we’re going to stand together for the working people in state of New Mexico, we’re going to stand together for the teachers and education because we know the fate of New Mexico stands at the apex right now.”

Now King sets his sights on Martinez, who has consistently polled in the 55-60 percent range since taking office in January of 2011.

King also needs to shore up disgruntled hardcore Democrats.

The Santa Fe New Mexican ran an opinion piece May 26 from activists from Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe headlined, “Democrats, Pick Anybody But Gary,” saying King’s record in two terms as attorney general has been “filled with inaction and incompetence.”

And outgoing state Treasurer James Lewis said rank and file Democrats need to get fired up for November. “There’s been some apathy, there’s been some complacency,” he told Steve Terrell of the New Mexican.

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

NM’s tire-slashing candidate gets a year in prison

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-03 17:40

A YEAR IN PRISON: Republican Gary Smith, seen here in a 2012 campaign photo, was sentenced to a year in prison for slashing the tires of one of his opponents and a former campaign manager.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

New Mexico’s candidate for the Sore Loser Hall of Fame is heading to prison.

On Tuesday, a district court judge in Albuquerque sentenced Gary Smith, a former Republican congressional candidate, to a 12-month sentence for felony stalking. Smith has already been sitting in the Metropolitan Detention Center for the last year and a half.

Smith was caught on videotape in late 2012 puncturing the tires of his former opponent, Janice Arnold-Jones, and was accused of slashing 54 tires of his former campaign manager.

At first, Smith denied the charges but the video showed a man fitting the description of Smith, who was 65 at the time, damaging the tires of vehicles owned by Arnold-Jones and her husband, who live in Northeast Albuquerque:

Smith signed up to run against Arnold-Jones in the 2012 GOP primary for the U.S. House of Representatives seat in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.

A longshot who had never run for political office before, Smith had his signature petitions qualifying him for the June primary ballot challenged by Arnold-Jones and a district court judge agreed, saying not enough of the signatures were valid, thus kicking Smith off the ballot.

Smith was angry after the decision, telling KOB-TV at the time, “When you go to your own kind, your own brother, your own sister, and they stab you in the back repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly.”

Smith’s troubles aren’t over.

The judge on Tuesday ordered Smith, upon completion of his sentence, to be extradited to El Paso, Texas to face charges of tire-slashing the vehicles of his former next-door neighbors, as well as threatening to burn down their house.

“The fact that we got targeted is very scary, and it’s clear that something is very wrong with him,” Arnold-Jones told New Mexico Watchdog last month.

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

Tesla gigafactory decision may not come until end of the year

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-03 16:41

WE’RE WAITING: Telsa Motors CEO Elon Musk now says he probably won’t make a final decision on a site for a “gigafactory” until the end of the year.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – The latest twist in the Tesla gigafactory sweepstakes came Tuesday, when electric car mogul Elon Musk made a couple announcements.

First, Musk told shareholders in Mountain View, Calif., that while he still plans to break ground on the battery factory this month, he may not make a final decision until late in the year.

Second, Musk said that he may select as many as three states as potential sites before choosing a winner.

“It might actually be three states that we do it in,” Bloomberg News quoted Musk as saying. “I would expect that we do a down-select for Gigafactory 1 before the end of the year.”

New Mexico is one of five states in the running for the factory that promises to bring 6,500 jobs. The other states are Nevada, Arizona, Texas and California — although Musk said last month that California was a long shot to win the contract, which is estimated to be worth $5 billion.

Plans for the gigafactory are “quite advanced,” Musk said Tuesday, adding that discussions about the plant take place daily with Panasonic Corp., Tesla’s main supplier of battery cells.

Tesla Motors is the largest electric car company in the world. It currently offers cars that are priced at about $70,000 each but has plans to dramatically increase production by producing a new model for about half the price.

When New Mexico was named as one of the states being considered, New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary Jon Barela told New Mexico Watchdog that winning the bid “would be would be a transformational opportunity for this state … Tesla is a fantastic company, it’s a forward-thinking company that fits into our R&D and technology culture.”

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

Tom Udall named in ethics complaint over IRS letter

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Tue, 2014-06-03 16:01

ETHICS COMPLAINT: Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, is one of nine Senate Democrats accused of pressuring the IRS into looking at political organizations.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico was one of nine Senate Democrats listed in a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, arguing the senators improperly contacted the Internal Revenue Service to investigate nonprofit political groups.

“Richard Nixon faced impeachment charges for attempting to use the IRS for political purposes,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a right-of-center group that describes itself as defenders of free speech. “To varying degrees, each of these senators did exactly this kind of conduct. It clearly violates the Senate rules.”

But Udall told New Mexico Watchdog he hasn’t been targeting one political group over another.

“No group seeking to influence elections should get tax-exempt status, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican,” Udall said in an email. “I continue to believe New Mexicans have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote, and who is paying for all those negative ads on television.”

In addition to Udall, the CCP complaint mentions U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The senators had expressed their opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case concerning campaign spending, and contacted the IRS asking the agency to see if some organizations applying for tax-free status under 501(c)4 rules were engaging in political activity more so than social welfare.

In March 2012, Udall signed a letter along with six other Senate Democrats to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman “to urge you to investigate these allegations.”

The letter didn’t specifically mention any specific groups, but did reference a New York Times article that mentioned American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Karl Rove.

In 2013, allegations surfaced that the IRS was targeting politically conservative groups.

Keating said his organization has no problem with members of Congress contacting the IRS and asking general questions about enforcing regulations.

“Where we draw the line is when they specifically name organizations and ask for investigations,” Keating told New Mexico Watchdog in a telephone interview. “Congress is a lawmaking body. It’s not a body in charge of enforcing the law and it shouldn’t be targeting individual citizens or individual groups … That’s not their role.”

“Sen. Udall wrote to the IRS in 2012 asking for better transparency and enforcement under the law because he was concerned that the IRS had failed to stop front groups in both parties from filing false statements and engaging in illegal amounts of political activity,” Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said Tuesday. “He has followed up with the IRS to propose three substantive rules to make it easier for them to apply the rules fairly to everyone and to prevent shadowy groups from breaking the law and increase transparency in elections. This ethics complaint is a frivolous effort to politicize a serious issue.”

CCP’s complaint singled out Levin, who wrote seven letters to the IRS asking the agency to look into specific groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and Patriot Majority USA.

An IRS official told Levin such information could not be legally divulged.

“I’ll be the first to admit that what Udall did does not compare to what Sen. Levin did, but we still think it’s improper because he’s referencing specific individual organizations in context with the IRS,” Keating said.

Keating said that under Senate Ethics Committee rules, the committee must launch a preliminary inquiry upon receiving a formal complaint.

Click here to read the Center for Competitive Politics complaint.

And click here to read the letter sent to the IRS that Udall signed in 2012.

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

Too early to tell how new EPA regulations will affect NM customers

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Mon, 2014-06-02 17:31

WAITING TO SEE: Officials at New Mexico’s largest utility say it’s too early to tell if new EPA regulations will affect plans to retrofit coal-fired units at the San Juan Generating Station.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Environmentalists were celebrating and a lot of energy companies were grumbling after the Obama administration rolled out new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on Monday but New Mexico’s largest utility company was taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Saying that the EPA draft rule “is a lengthy and complex document,” Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) senior vice president of public policy Ron Darnell said in a statement that “it’s too early to tell how it will affect PNM specifically.”

Or, how much extra it will cost PNM customers.

The new EPA rules will set national guidelines on carbon dioxide on existing power plants for the first time, aiming to reduce CO2 emissions 30 percent nationwide.

One of the primary targets of the new regulations is the coal industry.

PNM’s San Juan Generating Station in the northwest corner of New Mexico contains four coal-fired generating units and the company has put forth a proposal to retire two of the coal units as a way to reduce regional haze. The other two units plan to be retrofitted with pollution controls.

Since the PNM plan, which received non-binding approval last year from the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department, aims to reduce emissions 50 percent, PNM officials have been guardedly optimistic that Monday’s announcement will not effect the San Juan proposal.

“We appreciate that the EPA rule provides each state with significant flexibility in developing a compliance plan that recognizes unique opportunities and challenges,” Darnell said.

The San Juan plan still has to be approved by the Public Regulation Commission as well as the EPA.

With or without the new EPA regulations, PNM customers were going to pay more.

In early 2013, PNM estimated its proposal would cost the company between $400 million and $430 million. Judging from rough estimates made at the time, the plan would cost PNM customers a little more than $30 more per year.

“On the one hand, I’m pleased that (New Mexico appears) to be well positioned,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ray Flynn told Associated Press. “On the other hand, I still remain concerned about impacts to consumers. There’s no question that EPA’s action is going to result in increased costs for electric generation around the country.”

Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claimed the EPA regulations could cost up to $50 billion a year in GDP and keep 224,000 jobs a year from being created.

“Sure, energy companies are going to howl, but they can’t get a free pass to dump harmful waste into our air any longer, and they’re fully capable of innovating their way to solutions,” said National Audubon Society president and CEO David Yarnold.

The EPA says the regulations will save 6,600 lives and more than $50 billion a year in health care costs tied to air pollution.

Both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators, Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, hailed the decision.

“Climate change is a fact that is a problem in New Mexico today and not just at some far off date in the future,” Heinrich said. “The longer we wait to act, the more difficult and expensive the solutions will be and the more unpredictable our weather will become.”

But the only Republican in the New Mexico Capitol Hill delegation blasted the new regulations.

“The president and the EPA are using these regulations to force states into using cap-and-trade systems that could not even pass in the Senate with a filibuster-proof Democratic majority,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico. “The administration’s radical war on coal is nothing more than a war on the poor.”

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

Three cops in NM’s infamous anal cavity search case still on the job

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:37

STILL ON THE JOB: At least three officers involved in a series of anal cavity searches of a New Mexico man suspected of carrying drugs are still on the force, despite a $1.6 million settlement in the victim’s favor.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s one of the most shocking and infamous cases to ever come out of New Mexico: a man, falsely suspected of carrying drugs, forced to undergo multiple anal cavity searches.

Now, a year and half after the incident and six months after a settlement of $1.6 million in local taxpayer money was announced, New Mexico Watchdog has learned at least three police officers involved in the case are still on the job, while the status of three others remains a secret.

Deming Police Chief Brandon Gigante told New Mexico Watchdog on Thursday that all three officers in his department who were listed as defendants in a subsequent lawsuit are still on active duty. Gigante wouldn’t say why or reveal if the officers were disciplined.

“That is a personnel matter,” Gigante said in a telephone interview.

Three members of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office were also listed in the suit, but county officials refused to answer any questions about their status in the aftermath of the case involving Lordsburg resident David Eckert.

Back in January, a settlement was announced in which the 64-year-old Eckert will get $950,000 from the city of Deming and $650,000 from Hidalgo County — a total of $1.6 million for which taxpayers in the two communities are responsible.

According to the lawsuit, in early 2013 Eckert was pulled over by Deming cops for allegedly not coming to a full stop at a stop sign in a Walmart parking lot in Deming. Hidalgo County sheriff’s officers also arrived on the scene.

Authorities suspected Eckert was carrying drugs inside his anal cavity and over a 14-hour period subjected Eckert to two rounds of X-rays and three enemas and took him to a hospital in another county where Eckert was forced to undergo a colonoscopy.

No drugs were found. Eckert also received a bill for $6,000 for the colonoscopy. The case made international headlines, with noted legal scholar Jonathan Turley saying, “This case took my breath away.”

Two messages left with Hidalgo County Sheriff Saturnino Madero have gone unreturned.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon told New Mexico Watchdog, “I don’t know (about the status of the officers). I hate to admit it, but I don’t know anything … A county commissioner cannot have anything to do with personnel matters.”

Hidalgo County Commission Chairman Ed “Bim” Kerr referred questions to the county manager, Jose Salazar, who referred questions to the county’s attorney in the Eckert case, Damian Martinez.

“I can’t give any comment as to that,” Martinez said when contacted by New Mexico Watchdog.

Why not?

“I know where you’re coming from, but I’m (part of a) private law firm and my law firm’s policy is we don’t discuss litigation,” Martinez said. “Sorry I couldn’t help you, but I like your website.”

If public money has been spent, don’t taxpayers have a right to know if the officers involved are still on the force?

“It’s (Madero’s) department,” Shannon said. “I would be like you, I would be wanting to find out for the public, but I’m here to tell you government works in a way that is extremely odd, especially county government.”

New Mexico Watchdog is in the process of filing an Inspection of Public Records Act request with Deming and Hidalgo County authorities, seeking information about the case.

When news of the Eckert case broke, Deming Police Chief Gigante told KOB-TV, “We follow the law in every aspect, and we follow policies and protocols that we have in place.”

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

A ‘freedom of expression’ policy at NM college comes under fire

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:29

NOT SO FREE?: Critics say a proposed “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy at a New Mexico college is too vaguely worded.

By Rob Nikolewski│New Mexico Watchdog

It sounds agreeable enough on the surface: Officials at Northern New Mexico College are about to adopt what’s called a “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression policy” for students and staff.

But the vice president of the student Senate worries the policy may lead the small school of 2,100 students into potential lawsuits.

“My main argument is that it could be done as a guideline but to adopt it in its current form is problematic,” Samuel LeDoux told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s too broad … it’s just a bunch of buzzwords that don’t mean anything.”

The policy has not been finalized and is open for revision and public comment until June 12. The NMMC board of regents is expected to vote for or against adoption June 20.

“By no means do we want to infringe on anybody’s right to expression or speech,” said Ricky Serna, NNMC’s vice president for Institutional Advancement, said in a telephone interview. “We need to have a policy in place so when the administration works even on the most egregious of offenses they have some policy to protect us legally. If it isn’t written down somewhere, we can’t enforce anything.”

But LeDoux sees problems with the way the policy is worded.

For example, any “planned demonstrations” on campus must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance with the Office of Institutional Advancement.

“But elsewhere in the policy it says it doesn’t apply to spontaneous demonstrations,” LeDoux said. “How do you determine that and who determines what’s spontaneous?”

Serna said the 24-hour rule merely ensures facilities at the college aren’t overwhelmed by a demonstration involving large numbers of people, as well as avoiding logistical concerns.

“We’re a small institution,” Serna said. “We’re very limited for space and we want to make sure that if we’re holding an event or hosting a group that everybody’s activities are coordinated.”

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit based in Philadelphia that defends individual rights on college campuses, produced its own critique of the policy.

“It appears students and faculty may face censorship or disciplinary action for not ‘respecting diversity and difference’ (in Section 2 of the proposal), or for failing to promote ‘civility’ and ‘respectful communication’ (Section 3),” Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, wrote in response to questions about the proposal.

Majeed said the policy gives ultimate power to the college’s officials “to define and enforce those broad, amorphous terms.”

The NNMC proposal says the appropriate response to speech that may offend is “speech expressing opposing ideas and continued dialogue, not curtailment of speech” but then adds that “speech activity that unduly interferes with the rights of others or the ability of the College to carry out its mission is not protected by the First Amendment and violates this policy.”

FLASHPOINTS: A proposed free speech policy is the latest in a series of controversies at Northern New Mexico College, located in Espanola, N.M.

The University of New Mexico — the largest school in the state — has its own “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy that’s similar to the NNMC proposal. But LeDoux says that doesn’t mean NNMC should adopt it.

“UNM has been under the same kind of scrutiny by free speech organizations like the ACLU and FIRE,” LeDoux said. “Besides, UNM has the financial fortitude to fight lawsuits. NNMC does not.”

Serna says the policy is still going through the vetting process. “We sent these policies out to students and the campus communities,” Serna said. “We solicit the criticism. We’re not trying to be top-down about this.”

The free speech policy debate is the latest in a series of controversies at NNMC.

The school’s faculty entered a “no confidence vote” against the school’s administration in April and has protested a number of moves by the administration, including cutting three vocational programs.

Serna defended the moves, saying the school has been losing money on programs with low attendance, low graduation rates and low career placement rates.

Earlier this month the school spent $5,000 for private investigators. Administrators wouldn’t say why, but an assistant professor told the Albuquerque Journal the money was spent to look into assault charges the professor filed after an alleged altercation with the human resources director.

“It just seems like (the freedom of expression policy) is a response to all the drama from last month,” LeDoux said.

Serna denied that, saying the policy reviews started more than a year ago.

“There’s no question that along the path there’s going to be dissent, and these policies don’t say they’re not allowed,” Serna said. “They say as long as we do that in a professional and appropriate way then all of that is welcome.”

But LeDoux says free speech sometimes doesn’t fall into appropriate or professional categories.

“People do not have the right to not be offended,” he wrote in a letter to the Rio Grande Sun. “In college we discuss very controversial subjects, as we should, because college is where we try to learn to fix our problems, not censor them.”

You can read the NNMC’s “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy here:

2240 RespectfulCampus and 2220 Freedom Expression Dissent(1)


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

Speed cameras on track for a comeback in Santa Fe

Capital Report New Mexico Blog Postings - Wed, 2014-05-28 11:26

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — A lot of people just don’t like traffic cameras.

Two years ago, a 65-year-old Santa Fe man received the nickname “Speedcam Commando” after he pulled up to a camera set up on Bishop’s Lodge Road, got out of his car clad only in a nightshirt and pulled out a gun, firing five times at the speedcam. He then got back into his vehicle and drove home. It was all caught on tape:

The “Speedcam Commando” ended up making a plea deal and agreed to 18 months probation.

Now, two years after the video went viral, the Santa Fe City Council is on the verge of bringing back the speed cameras.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN?: The Santa Fe City Council is considering bringing back unmanned speed cameras.

The city’s Public Safety Committee approved a proposal to sign an agreement with Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems to place three unmanned SUVs equipped with cameras at strategic locations to nab speeders.

The City Council is expected to vote in July on the proposal.

Councilor Ron Trujillo says he’s is in favor of bringing back the cameras, which have idle for the past five months after the city’s contract with Redflex expired.

“I’ve got people who I represent saying, ‘Councilor, I’ve got people speeding through my neighborhood like it’s a raceway,’ ” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog. “You put those speed cameras in there and guess what? They call back and say the speeding has gone down dramatically.”

But some Santa Fe residents don’t want the speed cameras back at all.

“Regular traffic enforcement is what works,” retired lawyer Marlene Foster said in a telephone interview. “It’s not really about safety.”

Redflex has made headlines in other locations across the country.

In Chicago, Redflex lost its $100 million contract with the city after allegations surfaced that the company bribed local officials. Six Redflex executives were fired. One said the company handed out gifts and favors to communities in 13 states.

“I’m just appalled” that the city of Santa Fe is considering a new contract with Redflex, Foster said.

“That’s just astonishing to me.”

Redflex was the only company to bid on the Santa Fe contract.

“It’s unfortunate what happened in Chicago and other cities,” said Trujillo. “I personally think that’s outright wrong what they did but Redflex says they’ve gotten to the source of what the problem was … I think they want to be more diligent about what they’re doing but, in my opinion, this program has worked in this community.”

Trujillo says he has not received any gifts or campaign donations from Redflex.

Supporters cite statistics they say show a reduction in traffic mishaps after the cameras are installed. But critics say the surveillance causes rear-end accidents as drivers slam on their brakes when they see the SUVs.

“They say it’s about safety but it truly has nothing to do with safety,” Foster said. “I think you can find studies that show it doesn’t help with that. It has to do with revenue collection.”

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the city’s SUVs produced$2.3 million since 2009. Half of revenue derived from the citations goes to the state and the other half is divided between Redflex and the city.

Under the proposal before the City Council, the city will net between $8.50 and $18 per ticket issued.

Drivers caught speeding on the Redflex cameras receive $100 tickets. The citations are not counted on a driver’s record or insurance.

“I know theoretically you can challenge (the ticket) but it’s really difficult,” said Foster. “I know some people who tried to do that without too much success and they just gave up and paid.”

“I wish I could have a police officer 24 hours a day patrolling each street, but that’s not realistic and that’s not going to happen,” Trujillo said. “This is just a tool to aid our police officers … A lot of people hate it. Of course they do. Nobody wants to get a ticket. But the thing about it is, is it OK for you to run a red light or a stop sign just because a police officer is not there?”

Other cities in New Mexico have tried and then rejected traffic surveillance cameras.

In Albuquerque, despite calls from Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials to keep red-light cameras, 53 percent of voters in 2011 voted to get rid of them.

In Las Cruces, red-light cameras were deactivated on March 30 after city officials decided not to renew their contract with Redflex. But $2.9 million in fines are still outstanding, and City Manager Robert Garza said drivers who received tickets are still responsible for them.

“Those that were recorded during the program operation still have outstanding citations, and those who received the citations are expected to pay the associated fine or follow the appeal process outlined with their citation,” Garza told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

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

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