Democrats New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón and Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez are running against each other for New Mexico Attorney General. The primary election is on June 7, 2022. This blog article in an in-depth report on the records of both candidates.
OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
The Office of the Attorney General is one of 7 independently elected statewide offices in New Mexico. The Office was established by the State Constitution in 1912.
The Attorney General and the Department of Justice, collectively referred to as the Office of the Attorney General, represent and defend the legal interests and sovereignty of the people of the State of New Mexico. The Office of Attorney General exercises the responsibilities delegated by the New Mexico Constitution, statutes enacted by the New Mexico Legislature, and the common law.
The Attorney General has primary authority for enforcement of consumer protection and antitrust laws, prosecution of criminal appeals and some complex white-collar crimes, training and certification of peace officers, and most natural resource and environmental matters. The attorney general represents the state’s interests in civil litigation, criminal appeals, consumer protection, federal litigation, environmental issues, disputes with other states, enforcement of state compacts and even counterfeit Native American jewelry.
Additionally, the Office of the Attorney General works concurrently with New Mexico’s 13 district attorneys and other local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to carry out its criminal justice responsibilities and activities. Despite popular belief, the Attorney General is not primarily responsible for the prosecution for violations of the criminal code. Primary responsibility for prosecuting under the criminal code is the responsibility of the local, elected district attorneys. The District Attorney’s have first authority to prosecute cases that occur in their jurisdiction and not the Attorney General unless requested to do so by the district attorney or if the District Attorney refuses to act or is somehow disqualified because of conflicts of interests.
The Attorney General is the chief legal counsel and advisor to the executive branch of state government including all executive departments and to the many state agencies, boards, and commissions. The Office of the Attorney General delivers its responsibilities within an approximately $18-22 million budget appropriation through its team of approximately 200 employees.
The link to quoted source is here:
EDITOR’S COMMENTARY: Both Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Democrat United State Senator Martin Heinrich, who has endorsed Raúl Torrez and who has appeared in commercials for Torrez, are critical of Brian Colón saying he has never prosecuted a criminal case, ignoring Colón has practiced law for 21 years. They are both being disingenuous when they say being a criminal prosecutor is a qualification to be Attorney General.
The office is by far more civil law in nature and not criminal prosecutions. Both ostensibly are ignorant to the fact that former Democrat New Mexico Attorney Generals Tony Anaya, Jeff Bingaman, Paul Bardacke, Gary King and Republican Hal Stratton were never criminal prosecutors or for that matter elected District Attorneys with all being in the private practice of law as civil trial attorneys before becoming Attorney General. Attorney General Patricia Madrid was in private practice and was a District Judge before being elected Attorney General.
BERNALILLO COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY RAÚL TORREZ
On Monday, May 17, Democrat Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced that he is running for New Mexico Attorney General.
In his announcement, Torrez, 45, had this to say:
“New Mexicans are looking for somebody who’s a fighter in the attorney general’s office and someone who has real experience to take on the job. If you look at the work that we’ve done inside the district attorney’s office, we’ve been able to secure additional resources, modernize that office, transform how it operates, bringing frankly new capabilities that no one had ever envisioned.
I think New Mexicans want bold leadership and tested leadership inside the AG’s Office. … I think they want someone who isn’t afraid to take on some of the toughest challenges we’ve got in the state.
Fundamentally, I believe we don’t have a system right now that provides adequate protections for the general public. … It’s undeniable that we’ve got a very serious public safety challenge in Albuquerque. … Violent crime is unacceptably high, murders are extraordinarily high.
But what we need right now are individuals with experience in different systems, and who have worked as prosecutors and police leaders, who can draw on ideas from around the nation and try and move this community in a new direction. And I think I bring that to the table.”
Links to news sources are here:
Raúl Torres was born and raised in Albuquerque. He is the son of long time Assistant United States Attorney for New Mexico Pres Torres. He is married to Nasha Torrez, who is also an attorney, and the couple have two teenage children.
Raul Torrez went to Sandia Preparatory School, graduated from Harvard University, went on to receive a master’s degree from the London school of Economics, and attained his law degree from Stanford University and went on to be a White House Fellow under President Barrack Obama before coming back to New Mexico to become an Assistant United States Attorney. In 2016, Torrez ran to for Bernalillo County District Attorney and succeeded District Attorney Kari Brandenburg who served as DA for 16 years. Torrez was elected to second term on November 5, 2020.
EXAMINNG THE RECORD OF RAUL TORREZ AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY
District Attorney Raúl Torrez is very well known for his attacks on the criminal justice system proclaiming that it is a “broken criminal justice system”. During his first term as Bernalillo County District Attorney, Raúl Torrez attacked the New Mexico criminal justice system and judges on 3 major fronts:
FIRST: TORREZ BLAMED COURTS FOR “REVOLVING DOOR” AND HIGH VIOLENT CRIME RATES
Soon after being elected DA, Torrez began to blame the courts for the rise in violent crime rates saying that the “revolving door” is the courts fault. Four years ago, Torrez accused the District Court and the Supreme Court’s case management order (CMO) for being the root cause for the dramatic increase in crime and the dismissal of cases. The Supreme Court issued the order mandating disclosure of evidence within specific time frames to expedite trials. Torrez challenged the case management order before the New Mexico Supreme Court and also took action against an individual judge claiming the judge was requiring too much evidence to prove that a defendant was too violent to be released with bond.
Less than six months after being sworn in as District Attorney, Torrez had the DA’s Office issue a report that outlined the problems he perceived since the issuance by the Supreme Court of the Case Management Order (CMO). The main points of the DA’s 2016 report were that defense attorneys were “gaming” the systems discovery deadlines, refusing to plead cases, demanding trials or dismissal of cases when not given evidence entitled to under the law. The District Court did their own case review of statistics and found that it was the DA’s Office that was dismissing the majority of violent felony cases, not the courts.
SECOND: 65% COMBINED DISMISSAL, ACQUITTAL AND MISTRIAL RATES
In mid-2015 the Bernalillo County 2nd District Court began shifting from grand jury use to implementing “preliminary hearing” schedule. Raul Torrez was sworn in as District Attorney on January 1, 2017 and from day one he opposed the shift to preliminary hearings.
DA Raúl Torrez and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller wrote a joint letter to the New Mexico Supreme Court requesting it to intervene and stop the plans of 2nd Judicial District Court (SJDC) to shift away from the use of grand jury system to a preliminary hearing system.
The District Court provided an extensive amount of statistics, bar graphs and pie charts to the New Mexico Supreme Court to support the decision to shift from grand jury hearings to preliminary hearing showing it was necessary. The statistics revealed the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office under Raúl Torrez had a 65% combined dismissal, acquittal and mistrial rate with cases charge by grand juries. The data presented showed in part how overcharging and a failure to screen cases by the District Attorney’s Office was contributing to the high mistrial and acquittal rates.
THIRD: SHIFTING THE BURDEN OF PROOF
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez proposed a constitutional amendment that would create a “presumption” that a defendant is a threat to the public when charged with a violent crime and that they should be jailed until pending trial without bond or conditions of release. The presumption would shift the burden of proving dangerousness from the prosecution and require defendants accused of violent crimes to show and convince a judge that they should be released on bond or with conditions of release pending their trial on the charges.
According to Torrez, the cases where a defendant would be required to show they do not pose a threat to public and should be released pending their trial would include “the most violent and serious cases” such as murder, first-degree sexual assault, human trafficking, first-degree robbery, crimes involving a firearm and defendants who are on supervision or parole for another felony. Such a shift of burden of proof could conceivably require a defendant to take the stand during a detention hearing before their trial and a waiver of their 5th Amendment Constitutional Right against self-incrimination.
UNM STUDY OF “PRESUMPTION OF NO BAIL” CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
It was in July, 2019 that The University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research studied and reviewed the proposal by DA Torrez to change by constitutional amendment the way pretrial detention is handled in New Mexico. The UNM study found no evidence that Torrez’s proposal would improve public safety. Based on a review of cases in which a defendant was released despite the DA’s requesting detention, the study found that preventive detention motions filed by the District Attorney’s office did not “substantively” improve public safety as opposed to those cases in which no detention motions were filed.
The UNM study looked at more than 7,000 cases filed from July 2017 to August 2018 as part of the review. There were 1,500 cases that had preventive detention motions filed by the District Attorney’s Office. Of those preventive detention motions, 46% were granted and 54% were denied. The UNM study showed that a defendant’s current charge alone does not predict involvement in future dangerous crimes. The study found the offenses or statutes the DA listed in his pretrial detention proposal “are arguably questionable indicators of dangerousness.” The case review found no substantial differences in failure to appear and in new criminal activity rates between defendants for whom the DA did not request detention and those who were released despite the DA’s requesting detention.
“REBUTTABLE PRESUMPTION OF DANGEROUSNESS”
On November 2, 2020, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez Torrez was elected to a second term. He ran unopposed in the Democratic Primary and in the general election. Torrez became embolden with his election to a second term to the point of deciding to run for Attorney General. Torrez renewed his advocacy of a “rebuttable presumption of violence” system for pretrial detention. He lobbied heavily for the New Mexico legislature to enact enabling legislation and securing the support of Governor Michell Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller.
In preparation of the 2022 legislative session, the highly influential Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) released a 14-page memo analysis of the proposed “rebuttable presumption of violence” system and pretrial detention. LFC analysts found that low arrest, prosecution and conviction rates have more to do with rising violent crime rates than releasing defendants who are awaiting trial.
The LFC report seriously challenged the question if violent crime will be brought down by using a violent criminal charge to determine whether to keep someone accused of a crime in jail pending trial. According to the LFC report, rebuttable presumption is “a values-based approach, not an evidence-based one.” The LFC report said that while crime rates have increased, arrests and convictions have not. The LFC went on to say the promise of “swift and certain” justice has a more significant impact on crime rates that rebuttable presumption does not.
After the LFC report was release, legislators rejected all “pretrial detention” legislation which would have created a “rebuttable presumption of dangerousness” for defendants charged with violent crimes to be held in jail pending trial. Rebuttable presumption shifted the burden of proof from state prosecutors, who must prove a case “beyond a reasonable doubt” to convict, to the defendant who would have to show they are not a danger to the public in order to be allowed to be released pending trial.
During the 2022 New Mexico 30-day session that ended on Thursday, February 17, all legislation failed to enact the rebuttable presumption of being violent to permit jailing until trial. However, as a substitute, the legislature enacted a bill that requires the courts to turn over GPS monitoring data to police and prosecutors during a criminal investigation to allow better tracking of pretrial defendants on electronic monitoring. The goal of the GPS monitoring is to keep close tabs on a charged defendant to prevent them from committing another crime.
After the session ended, Torrez expressed no confidence in the bill. Torrez went out of his way to make the rounds with the media to say his biggest disappointments was the failure to pass the pre-trial detention bill. Torrez had this to say:
“The [legislature failed] to address the problem of the revolving door, specifically with regard to some of the most violent and dangerous defendants that we’ve got. People accused of murder, sexual assault, child abuse. Individuals who have been armed with firearms. … I’m concerned that we will once again see individuals who we have sought to have detained who have been released who will then go on to commit very serious crimes. The bottom line is the provision on GPS actually makes our jobs more difficult. It narrows the categories of defendants we can seek information on and it creates a privacy right for defendants who are considered to be in custody while they’re on GPS.”
DA Torrez’s argument that the legislation “creates a privacy right for defendants” was bogus. No “privacy rights” were being created. What was created was a system where prosecutors and law enforcement must give the very bare minimum reasons why they want the information in the first place.
MIXED REVIEWS ON CASE MANGEMENT
During his 5 years as District Attorney, Raúl Torrez has had a number of high profile failures in the prosecution of cases.
DA OFFICE GETS SCAMMED UNDER TORREZ
According to a February 20, 2019 Channel 4 Investigates Report, an imposter “scammed the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office” falsely claiming she was a victim in a case. The imposter demanded the charges dropped against the violent defendant and that he be released from jail. Below is the link to the Channel 4 report:
According to the news report, the Defendant Freddie Trujillo pled guilty in a 2017 aggravated assault case. Originally, Trujillo was placed on probation but in December 2018, Trujillo was jailed for violating his probation. Trujillo violated his probation when he physically attacked his estranged relatives, David and Mary Ann Baca. Trujillo was arrested after the attack on his relatives and jailed. One month later Trujillo was released from jail after the District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against him.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASE BACKLOG
According to a February 14, 2019 Channel 13 news story, an anonymous tipster within the District Attorney’s office sent News 13 pictures of stacks of domestic violence cases piled up on a table in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.
Below is the link to the story:
The photos were of 3 stacks of roughly 500 domestic violence case reports. Each one of the domestic violence reports were linked to a domestic violence victim left waiting from 2 to 5 months without hearing anything after calling police reporting misdemeanor domestic violence crimes including assault, theft and restraining order violations. Torrez went on camera with Channel 13, but only after a week had passed giving him time to clear out the backlog. District Attorney Raul Torrez explained the stacks of reports were made up of “criminal summons” cases where police did not arrest anyone for various reasons such as suspects had already left the scene of the crime.
INDICTING AN INNOCENT MAN
In March, 2017, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced and took credit for his office indicting 15 young people, ages 20 to 28, on gang related racketeering and other charges in the spring 2017. The RICO indictment was based upon an investigation of an alleged gang which APD said had started out tagging the area around West Central and escalated to committing violent crimes. District Attorney Raúl Torrez held a news conference calling the defendants “members of one of Albuquerque’s more notorious street gangs.”
On Sunday, August 18, 2019 the Albuquerque Journal reported on its front page that one of the young men indicted was 20-year-old Adan Perez-Macias. It was reported he was not a member of the gang APD was investigating or any other gang. It turns out Adan Perez Marcus did not know and never met the others indicted. Perez Marcus was not even in New Mexico at the time the crime he was accused of committing.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez labeled the wrongful indictment of Perez-Macias as “unfortunate” and said it could have happened in any case his office handled. When discussing the wrongful indictment of Perez Marcus, Torrez said this:
“We can be smart and be effective as institutions. We make mistakes and we learn from these mistakes and improve.”
Torrez had no apology, no expression of empathy and no offer of help to 20-year-old Adan Perez Marcus. When DA Raul Torrez says it’s all about justice for victims, he apparently does not believe innocent people are entitled to justice nor any kind of an apology for being wrongfully accused for crimes they have not committed.
MISHANDLING 10 YEAR OLD VICTORIA MARTENS MURDER
The most egregious mishandling of a prosecution case by District Attorney Raúl Torrez involved the August 24, 2016 murder of ten-year-old Victoria Martens whose was killed and her body dismembered and then burned in the apartment bathtub where she was killed in an apparent attempt to dispose of her body. Initially, Jessica Kelly and Michelle Martens, Victoria’s mother, and Michell’s boyfriend Fabian Gonzales, were arrested and charged for the rape, murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria. District Attorney Raúl Torrez personally took over the prosecution of the case.
On June 29, 2018 District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced he negotiated a plea agreement where Michelle Martens plead guilty to child abuse of her daughter Victoria Martens. The plea agreement negotiated was to 1 count of child abuse, recklessly caused, resulting in the death of a child under 12. The plea agreement guaranteed a 12 to 15-year prison sentence and dropped the most egregious charges of murder and rape. With the plea deal, Michelle Martens faced a possible sentence of 12-15 years, and with good time she could be out of jail within 6 to 7 years.
Torrez also announced several charges against Fabian Gonzales were dismissed. District Attorney Raúl Torrez said that much of the initial facts of the case were “simply not true”, yet Torrez had previously persisted in holding news conferences. The murder charge was dropped, but Gonzales was still charged with child abuse and tampering with evidence.
The initial APD police investigation and reports alleged that it was Jessica Kelley that stabbed 9-year-old Victoria Martens and that Fabian Gonzales strangled her while Michelle Martens watched the murder. During a press conference, Torrez stated that his office’s investigation found Michelle Martens falsely admitted to committing the crimes when forensic evidence revealed she and her boyfriend Fabian Gonzales were not even in the apartment at the time of the murder and did not participate in the murder.
Raúl Torrez had held a press conference after press conference after press conference in the case, including private meeting with the Journal Editors and reporters at the Journal Center. He had more than 3 front page Journal stories on the case and was interviewed by Chanel 4 on the “Eye on Albuquerque” Sunday program on plea agreements he has negotiated in the case.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez in his various media interviews shared extensive details of the case and prosecution strategy on the pending criminal prosecution against two other defendants, two identified and one yet to be found.
During a January 4, 2019 pretrial motion hearing, District Judge Charles Brown determined District Attorney Raúl Torrez had been “reckless” in his December 10, 2018 statement he made to the media about defendant Jessica Kelley’s absence of cooperation before her “no contest” plea.
On January 4, 2018, District Judge Brown said that Raúl Torrez should not have issued the December 10, 2018 statement at all. Judge Brown admonished Raúl Torrez for the statement by stating from the bench in open court:
“I don’t know if it was [intentionally done] to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, or if the goal was to shift the light away from the District Attorney’s Office or to move light to the Albuquerque Police Department … I find it to be woefully inaccurate in its ambiguity. It could be interpreted in many ways – all of them positive to the District Attorney’s office, some to the detriment of others. The District Attorney also has an obligation to protect the due process right of the defendant. … [The District Attorney] … represents the state, which is everyone including the defendant and the defendant’s families … The District Attorney’s obligation is to the system.”
THE JACKSON WELLER MUDER BY DARIAN BASHIR
On May 4, 2019 University of New Mexico baseball player Jackson Weller was killed by Darian Bashir outside a Nob Hill bar. Two years before the murder, Bashir was arrested for shooting another man outside another downtown bar. Darian Bashir was charged by the District Attorney for the first murder but never went to trial in that case. A District Court Judge found that Bashir never went to trial in the first case due to the District Attorney failing to comply with deadlines, not interviewing witnesses on time, and not responding to motions. It was revealed that an attorney not licensed to practice law in New Mexico was appointed by Torrez to handle the case.
Darian Bashir was charged with the murder of Jackson Weller and on November 9, 2021, a jury convicted Bashir of first-degree murder in the death of Jackson Weller. On February 8, 2022, Darian Bashir was sentenced to life in prison for the murder Jackson Weller. It is likely that Jackson Weller would be alive today but for the negligent prosecution of Darian Bashir by District Attorney Raúl Torrez.
FEDERAL JUDGE FINDS PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT BY TORREZ
In 2012, United States Federal Judge Cristina Armijo accused then Assistant United States Attorney Raúl Torrez prosecuting a drug case of trying to “unfairly alter” a transcript of a recorded encounter between drug agents and an Amtrak train passenger suspected of carrying a large quantity of crack cocaine.
In her original ruling in the drug case Torrez was prosecuting, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo found that the charged defendant had been “coerced” into submitting to a search by federal 2 drug agents.
TORRES ALTERS A TRANSCRIPT
At the center of the controversy was that Raúl Torrez asked 2 Federal law enforcement agents to review a transcript of a recording that was found “inaudible”. Instead of calling them as witnesses to testify under oath, Torrez asked the federal agents to make changes to the transcript based on their recollection of what was said and what occurred. Torrez then made a new transcript that combined their changes and informed the judge during the hearing that he wasn’t offering it as evidence but an “aid” for listening to the recording. Defense counsel objected, telling the judge “They’re trying to make an illegal search legal by making changes in the transcript.” The court agreed with the defense and entered the order.
Judge Armijo wrote in her original order:
“Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that the Government attempted to unfairly alter the content of the official transcript and thus the substance of what is purported to be represented on the audio recording in the case. Specifically, the Court finds that the Government attempted to take advantage of the obviously poor quality of the audio recording and the chaotic environment in the train car by having its witnesses … make substantive changes to the official transcription of the recording in a manner that favored the government’s case.”
After entry of the order, the United State Attorney filed a motion asking Judge Armijo to withdraw her findings about Torrez and requested that the original order and the language be deleted. Armijo honored the request and also deleted other language that faulted the testimony of the 2 drug agents during the suppression hearing as being “colored or influenced by the government’s efforts.” The day after Judge Armijo filed her amended ruling, the United States Attorney office dismissed the felony drug possession case against the Defendant.
Torrez in a May 9, 2016 Albuquerque Journal report said there was a “misunderstanding” of a transcript he initially offered at the hearing on a defense motion to suppress evidence. He said he never intentionally tried to mislead anyone. Torrez had this to say:
“I could have done a better job … but I had no idea there were going to be any kind of findings [from Judge Armijo] … I was pretty surprised and upset [at Judge Armijo’s’ ruling] … I’m pretty protective of my professional reputation. I’ve worked extremely hard both in school and my professional life. And the idea that I would jeopardize all of that, and my law license, for a drug case? That, frankly … doesn’t make any sense.”
As for the problems in preparing the evidence, Torrez gave the excuse that he “had 50 other cases going on [at the time].”
Torrez said he was never disciplined nor asked to leave the U.S. Attorney’s Office and said his departure was unrelated to the case, which is difficult to believe. The United States Attorney’s Office for its part has never disclosed the reasons why Torrez left and the office has declined to make any comment, saying it was a “personnel matter”.
Kenneth Gonzales, who was the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico at the time of the case and is now a U.S. District Judge, referred the Journal to “the publicly-filed briefs” and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Steve Yarbrough, who was First Assistant U.S. attorney and who signed the
motion asking Judge Armijo to withdraw her remarks about Torrez, declined to comment. He became a U.S. Magistrate.
NEW MEXICO STATE AUDITOR BRIAN COLÓN
On May 13, Democrat New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced his candidacy for the office New Mexico State Attorney General. In making his announcement, Colón said he sees the office of Attorney General as the logical opportunity to “take the next step” to deal with crime in the state.
Colón is from Los Lunas, New Mexico, is married, his wife’ name is Aleli and the couple have 1 adult child, Rafael who recently graduated from college. Mr. Colón attended the University of New Mexico Law school from 1998 to 2001 earning his Juris Doctorate. He attended New Mexico State University from 1988-1998 and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration majoring in Finance.
State Auditor Colón is serving his first term as State Auditor having been elected to a 4 year term in 2018. He could have run for one more term as State Auditor, but has opted to run for Attorney General.
According to Colón, his motivation is rooted in his experience growing up in New Mexico and his desire to serve his community.
Prior to becoming State Auditor, Colón served as the Chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. In 2010, he ran for and lost his bid for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico and in 2017, he ran for Mayor of Albuquerque. Colón is very well known within political circles for never ending positive campaigning, his fund-raising prowess not only as a candidate for office but on behalf of numerous charitable organizations. In 2017 when he ran for Mayor of Albuquerque, Colón raised upwards of $800,000.
EXAMINNG THE RECORD OF BRIAN COLÓN AS STATE AUDITOR
As State Auditor, Colón has emphasized protecting taxpayer dollars from “waste, fraud and abuse”. Colón said he wants the Attorney General’s office to take on tough cases local prosecutors shy away from, including prosecutions of bad cops or corrupt politicians. Crimes against children, sex crimes and gun crimes would also be priority. Colón had this to say:
“[New Mexico] can’t have prosperous communities until we have safe communities. … What motivates me is to fight for New Mexico’s families. … It’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
The following reported actions and audits are considered the major accomplishments of Brian Colón during his term as State Auditor.
On Monday, November 18, 2019 New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced the results of a special audit he had ordered. The audit found $2.7 million in secret settlements involving appointees of former Republican Governor Susana Martinez. The settlements lacked proper documentation, transparency, and investigations according to the audit. Colón proclaimed the settlements an “abuse of power” by former Republican Governor Susana Martinez. According to Colón, the secret settlements were done to save the former Governor from embarrassment, protect her personal reputation, and to protect her political appointees and her political agenda.
The special audit came after revelations about secret settlements of lawsuits against state official appointees by former Republican Governor Susana Martinez. Some of the settlements were sealed until after the former Governor’s departure from office at the end of 2018.
Auditor Colón ordered the special audit after retired New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas went public asserting that $2 million worth of settlements of claims filed against him and the Department of Public Safety were reached in the final weeks of the Martinez administration. Kassetas protested the settlements saying the claims had not been investigated thoroughly. The settlements included “gag orders” that no party to the settlements could disclose the terms of the settlements.
The special audit found settlements of civil rights claims from fiscal year 2015 to the end of the Martinez Administration and the present averaged 607 days and higher. According to the audit, 18 claims were settled before Martinez left office much faster with most under 200 days. The audit also found that in a number of the settlements examined, the confidentiality periods and damages assessed for violating those agreements exceeded what is mandated by state law. The contracted state auditors reviewed the paper trail for each settlement and tried to speak with the outside attorneys hired to defend the state, along with former Risk Management Division officials and plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The special audit uncovered nearly $3 million in legal settlements from Governor Susana Martinez’s administration that were fast-tracked, approved with little or no investigation nor documentation, and contained illegal confidentiality agreements. During his press conference, New Mexico State Auditor Brain Colón strongly condemned the secret settlements by saying:
“This is about an abuse of power. It’s about a lack of transparency, and particularly as it relates to political appointees by our former governor. … We should never settle matters and use taxpayer dollars to protect political interest, political legacies and personal agendas. These are not anomalies that don’t matter … These are anomalies that actually represent secret payouts to protect the [fomer Gov. Martinez] administration’s reputation. … [W]hat’s truly concerning and what really is disgusting is that $2.7 million of those $5 million in settlements were done in secret without process and without a proper investigation. … There was virtually no proof in the files and in the records as to why these high dollar amounts were approved [by the Martinez administration.]”
You can review the entire Colón press conference here:
APD POLICE OVERTIME SCANDAL
On Monday July 13, 2020 New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón announced ordering a special audit of APD’s overtime payment policies to APD Police Officers. Colón ordered a special audit of all APD overtime policies after he said his office found enough red flags related to overtime practices and internal controls at APD. According to the June 24, 2020 letter to Mayor Tim Keller, the Office of the State Auditor designated the City for a special audit “in order to examine the City’s compliance with applicable laws, regulations, policies, and procedures.”
On Friday, August 6, 2021, the New Mexico State Auditor’s long-awaited special audit report on APD overtime abuse was released. The 64-page audit covers the time period of January 1, 2018 to June 30, 2020. The link to the entire 64-page audit report is here:
According to the released special audit, it was the 7th audit performed on APD overtime practices since 2014. The 6 prior audits resulted in 17 findings and recommendation made. There was an absolute failure by APD command staff to carry out and implement the changes needed to solve the overtime problem. The released audit identified that certain APD police union contract terms and conditions were in violation of the Federal Labor Fair Standards act and that the police union contract has contributed significantly to the overtime pay abuse by rank-and-file police officers.
Colón had this to say in part about the audit release:
“Six prior audits or investigations had been performed regarding APD overtime. Five of those reports have been reviewed as part of this report. This report is the seventh regarding APD overtime since the first report in May of 2014. Each of the reports had detailed findings and recommendations that were not implemented. … The 2014 and 2017 reports had all of the findings and recommendations necessary to fix and prevent the issues reported on in the 2018, 2019, and the 2020 reports. The findings were clear, as were the recommendations. However, the recommendations were not implemented.”
“There has been inadequate oversight by both the City and APD. The systemic cause is that the City did not have a procedure to ensure all open audit reports and unresolved findings were accumulated and worked on until resolved. … Continued failure to provide oversight, monitoring and accountability has resulted in abuse and contributed to the public’s mistrust. … The City and APD must not waste any time in implementing the identified opportunities for improvement.”
“What we know in this case is that time and time again, leadership at APD clearly ignored the findings that were presented. … These are the kind of findings that lead to continued waste and abuse and ultimately fraud. … “The most troubling thing is that we have had findings in the past that were ignored by [the APD] administration, and that is just going to be wholly unacceptable every single time. … It’s completely inappropriate … years later still not having policies and procedures in place to protect the citizens of Albuquerque when it comes to expenditures at APD.”
Colón said he thought his office’s latest audit would make a difference. He said an annual audit for the city would look at the issue.
OUSTING ENTIRE SCHOOL BOARD
On March 3, 2021, State Auditor Brian Colón released an audit of the Los Lunas Public Schools that uncovered violations of the State’s procurement code, the state Governmental Conduct Act and open records and open meetings violations.
On May 26, 2021, based on the State Audit, it was reported that the state Public Education Department removed the five-member school board as a result of the audit and “the severe, un-remediated and persistent impairment of the education process by certain members of the school board.” The Public Education Department identified 8 violations of the state’s Governmental Conduct Act found by the State Auditor.
According to the removal letter “certain members”of the board addressed a district employee in a threatening manner at a board meeting and pressured another employee through their family to lie about “moonlighting” for their supervisor while on the job.
One member of the board was accused of asking a potential vendor to the district what was “in it” for them for setting up a possible contract. The Public Education Department also noted violations of the state’s public access laws after the board refused to hand public records over to the state, used personal email addresses for board matters and failed to provide specificity on agenda items before voting.
Colón had this to say about the audit:
“The Los Lunas schools, my alma mater, I knew almost everybody on that school board, a couple of them my whole life, but we still held them accountable.”
AUDIT OF LACK OF ADA-COMPLIANCE AT STATE GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS
On October 5, 2021, it was reported that an audit found continued accessibility issues at state government buildings throughout New Mexico. Upwards of 20% of New Mexicans have some sort of physical disability.
There are upwards 760 buildings in the state with ties to New Mexico state government, including office buildings, warehouses and more. The audit reviewed access between the parking lot and the front door of 23 different buildings used by various departments of state government. Buildings were tested in several locations around the state including Albuquerque and Fort Stanton near Ruidoso among other places. The audit found ADA compliance issues at 23 government buildings.
This audit detailed a 2-month study of state properties from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, to other parts of the state like Deming, Las Cruces and Las Vegas. The audit tested the number of parking spaces available for people with disabilities and pavement markings. Auditors also tested if the designated route from handicapped parking spaces to the front door of the building was the shortest available route. Among the findings, about one-third of parking lots reviewed did not have the proper number of van accessible spaces. Around 20% of the buildings didn’t have proper markings. Amid the findings state officials overseeing buildings made “compliance a priority” and made repairs.
“The administration immediately shifted resources to address the issue and did not wait. … That’s exceptional government in action.”
Links to quoted news sources are here:
COWBOYS FOR TRUMP
On March 5, 2022, it was reported that the Otero County Commission awarded a “no bid” contract to spending nearly $50,000 of taxpayer money on a so-called audit of the 2020 presidential election over objections from the county attorney and clerk. Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin sponsored the measure. Griffin is the founder of Cowboys for Trump was federally prosecuted and convicted for crimes related to the January 6, 2021 assault on the US capitol.
It was reported that where people are going door to door asking questions about how people voted. The canvassing was done EchoMail, a company that was also involved in an audit of the election in an Arizona county. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the canvassing amounted to voter intimidation or harassment and said it was a “vigilante audit.”
State Auditor Brian Colón sent a letter on March 14, 2022 to the Otero County commission saying the county was deficient in its ability to properly oversee the contract compliance by EchoMail. Colón’s letter stated that the $49,750 election audit is not in the best interest of residents and amounted to political grandstanding.
“It appears that the County Commission failed to treat their government position as a public trust and instead used the powers and resources of their public office to waste public resources in pursuit of private interests concerning unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud. … [It] appears the County Commissioners may have abused their power in approving the County’s contract with the vendor for an ‘election audit’ that was not in the best interests of constituents and seemingly purely political grandstanding. The stated purpose and methodology of the ‘audit’ gives the appearance of the entire affair simply being a careless and extravagant waste of public funds, which does not appear to serve any useful purpose to the taxpayers of Otero County. … [A]additional concerns … suggest that … volunteer canvassers at the direction of the contractor are falsely representing themselves as employed by the County. … The [Office of the State Auditor] has concerns of potential liability for the County in connection with alleged civil rights violations of its citizens.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The Office of New Mexico Attorney General historically is considered by many as the “people’s attorney.” Elected Attorney Generals have gone onto higher office including Toney Anaya who was later elected Governor, Jeff Bingaman who was later elected United States Senator and Tom Udall who was also later elected United States Senator
Brian Colón has more at stake given that his term is ending at State Auditor while Raúl Torrez will have two years left of his term as District Attorney should he lose the Attorney General’s race. Elected Attorney Generals have gone onto higher office including Toney Anaya who was later elected Governor, Jeff Bingaman who was later elected United States Senator and Tom Udall who was later elected United States Senator.
The race between both Colón and Torrez was bound to be hard fought in that both have expressed they are interested in eventually becoming Governor or going on to serve in congress. Both State Auditor Brian Colón and District Attorney Raúl Torrez are well-funded and their personal attacks on each other will likely continue until election day.
Whoever wins the Democratic Primary on June 7, 2022 will likely become the next Attorney General.
A link to a related blog article is here: