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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Into The Sinkhole: Guv, Mayor And DA Grapple With ABQ Crime, Plus: Heinrich's Chaco Canyon Coup  

Keller and Torrez
We've called the ABQ crime wave a political sinkhole and that's been pretty much on the mark lately. Here's what's happened:

--The decision by Gov. Lujan Grisham to deploy 50 state police officers in ABQ to help fight crime has been widely praised, but it's alienating her further from the conservative south. The Otero County Sheriff complains that his area now lacks state police manpower because of their temporary move to the big city and that crime is going up because of it. He points the finger directly at the Governor.

--BernCo District Attorney Raul Torrez is in open and often ugly warfare with the district court judges and the state's criminal defense lawyers. The war escalated with the DA's latest anti-judge ploy. He asked the NM Supreme Court to ignore the judges and have them abandon their plans to have him present felony cases before preliminary hearings presided over by the judges rather than the grand jury controlled by the prosecutor.

---ABQ Mayor Tim Keller, who had avoided criticizing the judiciary, has now joined Torres in the war by co-signing his letter to the high court concerning the preliminary hearings. Earlier Keller told the public the alleged killer of a UNM baseball player should have been behind bars and not on the streets because of prior criminal behavior, implicating the courts in the murder. But it turns out that DA Torrez had to fess up that he messed up the earlier charges against the alleged killer and fired the attorney he had handling the case.

Why Keller is going for the judge bashing is perplexing. Maybe the polls are pushing Torrez and him in that direction. But judging by the intense and often effective pushback they are getting from those they are attacking it's political folly in the long run.

Who will be next to be lured into the sinkhole? We can't say but its getting pretty crowded down there.

HEINRICH'S COUP

He took plenty of heat for his April vote in favor of making controversial former GOP lobbyist David Bernhardt the new Secretary of Interior, but Dem US Senator Martin Heinrich saw that vote pay off this week--at least for a year. The news:

Opponents of fracking in the Chaco Canyon region won a key victory this week when U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich secured a commitment from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to put a year-long hold on any energy leasing within ten miles of the cultural site following his visit to Chaco Canyon Culture National Historical Park.


Heinrich's friends scoffed at speculation that he voted for Bernhardt because he would someday like to be Interior Secretary himself and get confirmed with GOP support. Perhaps. Heinrich said of the vote:

When I've had success with secretaries of Interior with whom I did not share the same value set with, it's when I can get them out of Washington, D.C., to see something on the ground, so you aren't arguing about dogma in some paragraph of policy.

Well, he brought Bernhardt to Chaco and got his year-long moratorium on energy leasing. Even his harshest environmental critics can't argue with that success.

TURNED TABLES

A reader writes of the trouble of former Gov. Susana Martinez chronicled here this week and notes recent activity of another former Governor--Dem Bill Richardson:

And now, tables and worms have turned and Bill Richardson has the street cred to endorse senatorial candidate Ben Ray Lujan, while, clearly,  most R's would rather have the shingles than Susana's endorsement.

Richardson, a longtime supporter of Lujan's, this month told the New Mexican he is endorsing the northern congressman. Lujan is opposed for the Dem Senate nod by Sec. of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. As for the Republicans, they have no name players on the Senate field for Martinez or anyone else to endorse.

STILL A GREAT PLACE


We wrap it up with where we started--ABQ crime. Here's some equal time for the glass is half-full crowd from reader Dennis Trujillo:

Joe, despite the many vacant storefronts in ABQ's Nob Hill, it is still a great place to live and walk. I have noticed a police presence on the streets and along with the sidewalk cleaning patrol, things are looking up. Some new businesses are opening and hopefully this is a sign of things to come. I recently thought about a move after 25 plus years here but after doing some serious looking, Burque's weather, the Sandias, the Rio Grande walk/ride trails, the affordability and good friends made us want to stay. I originally came to get a PhD at UNM and stayed here--glad we did. Burque and Nob Hill are a great place to live!

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Poll In District Of Powerful State Senator Raises Question; Vulnerable Or Not? Plus: Following Up On the Martinez Lawsuit Mess 

Sen. Smith 
State Senator John Arthur Smith has held forth in the Senate for thirty years and is preparing to run for another four in 2020. But what if a strong opponent should emerge to run against the conservative Democrat in next June's primary? Could Smith be endangered? Polling conducted this month in his Luna, Hidalgo, Dona Ana and Sierra County southwestern district paints a mixed picture.

Conducted by a political operative, the landline survey of likely Democratic voters--those who have voted in the past two state elections--has Smith getting a 44 percent favorable rating. A high 37 percent are neutral or have no opinion of Smith, arguably the most powerful state legislator due to his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. That goes to show that no matter how well-known or how long they have served, legislators simply don't register with a wide swath of voters.

The poll went on to test Smith's opposition to several key bills most Democrats favored in the last legislative session. They included background checks for gun sales, the measure to repeal an outdated law that criminalizes abortion in the state and the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow a portion of the state's $18 billion Land Grant Permanent School Fund to be tapped for early childhood education, a proposal Smith has blocked for years.

After hearing that list, likely Dem voters were not prone to support Smith for re-election, with only 22 percent saying they would get his vote, but 42 percent would oppose him and 36 percent were undecided.

They might have thrown in a question about Luna County's unemployment rate as well. It is by far the highest in the state coming in at 13.7 percent in April. How bad is that? None of the other 32 counties even comes close to a double digit jobless rate. The next highest is Sierra County at 7.2 percent part of which is also in Smith's district.

The poll indicates that an effective negative campaign by a strong opponent could at least get the race in play. So far that opponent has not appeared, giving Smith, who will turn 78 in July, ample breathing room.

Will it last is the question. The stakes are high. The defeat of Smith could be the beginning of the end or indeed the end of the coalition of conservative Democrats and Senate Republicans that have for years ruled the Senate and today are a hurdle any Governor must jump over whenever they stray from the coalition way of thinking.

MARTINEZ MESS

Following up on the Martinez lawsuit mess, maybe some of those who sued the state will spill the gory details. That's because the current Governor says her administration will not enforce a confidentiality agreement reached between disgruntled former public safety employees who sued the state over sex harassment and other charges and the state's Risk Management Division. According to KRQE-TV sources, the employees threatened to disclose salacious and damaging information about Martinez if the suits were not settled. They were--to the tune of $1.7 million.

If those who sued start talking it might make for a good story called "Sex, Lies and Audiotape." The agreement called for keeping the settlement details secret until 2023.

And State Auditor Brian Colon entered the controversy saying he will conduct a "special audit" of the $1.7 million paid. He questions that unusual confidentiality agreement and the speed in which the lawsuits were settled in the final days of the Martinez administration. If he finds anything he suspects is criminal (like a wire job to pay off the plaintiffs with state money) he would send it to the attorney general for further investigation. If Colon doesn't find anything, it will be a real head scratcher. This deal is one of the seamier ones you will ever see in your travels through La Politica.

The attorneys for several of the plaintiffs are in full battle cry, demanding in a long-winded news release that KRQE "cease and desist" from repeating the news story about the settlements and take it down from their web site. They defend their clients complaints of sex discrimination and/or retaliation and claim the story trivializes them, their allegations, is factually in error and adds that no extortion of Martinez occurred.

Cease and desist? You mean like they do in Venezuela?

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Messy End Days Of Susana Martinez; Rushed Lawsuit Settlements Raise Serious Questions And Deliver Final Blow To A Sour Legacy 

The ignominious, humiliating final days of Governor Susana Martinez will probably draw more attention from future generations than today's. That's because her reputation was already shattered and her administration judged among the worst in state history long before her last chapter was written. In the end even her "best friend" and the Republican Party that she led turned on her.

The nation's first Hispanic female Governor, who proclaimed herself a role model, will instead be a tragic example of what could have been and what not to be. The promise she falsely represented to the young Hispanic women of America was her greatest betrayal.

The end days of her marred tenure played out this month sensationally and salaciously with the revelation that the state's Risk Management Division quickly (and questionably) approved $1.7 million in lawsuit settlements to disgruntled ex-employees, some of whom threatened to put Martinez's dirty laundry on the state's clothes line for all to see.

In the final hypocrisy of her tenure, the state rapidly sealed until 2023 the records of these settlements. This from the self-proclaimed "most transparent administration in state history."

While the media rightly focused on the secrecy of the settlements, the question also arose of whether those bringing suit essentially extorted Martinez over her personal affairs. That, in turn, raised the question of whether she or her underlings succumbed by intervening (illegally?) with the state's Risk Management Division to settle the claims.

That premise was explored in the original report from KRQE-TV in which then-State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, whose alleged misbehavior was at the center of the lawsuits filed by Department of Public Safety employees. Several worked on Martinez's personal security detail. He said in a December email to the then-Governor:

I will not partake in the settlement mediation as I cannot be part of any extortion effort. I beg of you to cancel the settlement mediation scheduled for the 27th and let this case carry over to the next administration, Please do not settle this case.

What exactly was the "extortion effort?" Take a look:

In a December 20, 2018 email sent prior to a mediation settlement conference. . . lawyer Merit Bennett (representing Dianna DeJarnette, Terri Thornberry and Amy Orlando) asked Risk Management attorney Paula Maynes for all 'embarrassing or compromising… information'...regarding the personal life, alcohol or drug abuse or addiction, personal or intimate relationships or marital conflicts of the Governor."

In case you you forgot, Amy Orlando, who landed a job at DPS, was once Martinez's BFF, displaying the same insouciant cockiness as her powerful friend when both enjoyed days of too much wine and too few roses.

Then there's that tape recording disclosed by KRQE of Martinez's husband, Chuck Franco, that sources say references politically damaging details of Martinez's sex life and the couple's marital strife.

The phone call, taped by one of the state police officers who ended up as one of those suing the state, said she was asked to do it at the behest of an apparently very worried Governor. The content of that tape was brought to the attention of Risk Management prior to the case settlements.

Whew. That's a boatload and leads back to the question of whether there was a crime committed by the rapid fire settlement of these lawsuits:

Sources say the Risk Management Division paid a group of disgruntled public employees huge sums of money in order to keep alleged compromising information about then Governor Martinez under wraps. . . . The claims. . . were settled in 30 days. The files were then sealed from public view.. . . Confidential sources. . .say the claims were resolved in the final days of the Martinez administration out of fear that personal information about the Governor might be made public.

Could Attorney General Hector Balderas answer this question: Did Martinez or her underlings improperly interfere with Risk Management to get the money paid out and spare her the indignity of having embarrassing personal revelations revealed?

The ex-Governor says:

I did not encourage, influence or become involved in any Risk Management settlements. . . If these plaintiffs attempted to use unrelated and unfounded personal or private information as leverage for their personal benefit, then that is very disappointing. I hope and trust that Risk Management and the professional mediator in the case would not have allowed any such irrelevant and unfounded claims to influence their handling of any case and I have not seen any evidence that indicates they allowed anything like that to be a factor.

Shouldn't that statement by Martinez be put to the test in a formal investigation by Balderas? The AG said he has received complaints about the settlements but has not said if he will launch a formal investigation.

State Auditor Brian Colón's office will today announce an "examination" of the lawsuit settlement process. We'll see what comes of that but the buck ultimately stops with Balderas.

Of course, it's ridiculous for the lawsuits to be sealed for five years. That's practically unheard of and needs to be revoked. But the decision-making process of how that $1.7 million was paid out on flimsy evidence would seem to be ripe for investigation. That is, if the state wants a Risk Management agency known for integrity-- not one that can be bought off.

GOP REBUKE

In Happier Times
Martinez's embarrassment was Steve Pearce's opportunity. For years the two have been bitter Republican rivals. When news broke of the lawsuit settlements, Pearce, now chairman of the state GOP, hit with an eyebrow raising rebuke:

"New Mexico has a long and troubling history of public corruption and secret deals like the ones we are hearing about this week. They only make our state's reputation worse and prevents us from achieving our full potential," the party said.

The utter destruction of the reputation and legacy of Susana Martinez, and the New Mexican Republican Party reduced to a state of rubble. My, how the once mighty have fallen.

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day 2019 

Senators Pinto and Campos
We have a fitting tribute this Memorial Day to State Senator John Pinto, New Mexico's longest serving senator but who will be remembered as much, if not more, for his service to America as a Marine who became one of the now famous Navajo Code Talkers whose work was critical to the nation's success in WWII.

Pinto, 94, died last week. Pete Campos, his longtime friend and fellow Democratic State Senator, remembers him in this special report for NM Politics with Joe Monahan:

Hi Joe, I’ve been giving a lot of thought regarding the life of the legendary and honorable New Mexico State Senator John Pinto. The more I think of his contributions the more amazing I believe his life really was! The following two paragraphs are a sketch of those thoughts.

Never lose sight of your lifetime achievements. In the end it comes down to just a few words that best describe how you lived, what you were best known for – and the impact you made on the lives of others. While those few words that describe you are profound: the memories, accomplishments and legacy you leave behind will live on in recordings of all kinds. Remain inspired by the lives of others, and in turn your life will have its own fascinating story.

Most Senior New Mexico State Senator John Pinto taught us all by his actions. He exuded great stamina and exuberance in all he did. His keen wit, wisdom and magnetic charisma earned him the respect of colleagues, constituents and all those with whom he came in contact. He left tens of thousands with fond memories of his classic greetings, his use of genius methods to secure funding for and completion of huge capital projects, and a legacy that proves “if you put your mind to  something--you can get it done”! NM State Senator John Pinto’s fascinating story has just begun to unfold.

Well said, Pete, on behalf of all New Mexicans on this Memorial Day 2019.

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