By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
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.”
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: