Thursday, July 29, 2021

"SHE FOOLED ME." La Politica Rocked By Stapleton Scandal; House Leader Alleged To Have Stolen Nearly $1 Million From APS In Decade Long Scheme; Will She Resign? How Could Crime Go So Long? Where Was The Oversight? Plus: GOP Surprises With Weak Scandal Reaction; The Big News, Analysis And Context Are Up Next  

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton
Friday afternoon Rep. Stapleton announced she is resigning from her House seat. 

"She fooled me." That was a common refrain in La Politica Wednesday as law enforcement agents swooped down on the ABQ home of state House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton seeking evidence that she stole nearly $1 million from her employer, the ABQ Public Schools. 

Veteran lawmakers and operatives seemed genuinely stunned at the scope of the alleged rip off and it's long lasting nature. The scheme allegedly went on for ten long years. They know Democrat Stapleton, the first African-American woman elected to the NM legislature, as a determined, driven politician who has climbed the ranks of leadership since first being elected in 1994. She had a couple of ethical lapses in that time but nothing prepared them for the political bombshell that exploded over the state Wednesday like a neutron bomb. "She fooled me." Several acquaintances confessed.

There were oversight failures on multiple fronts sure to have repercussions. APS Superintendent Scott Elder admitted the failure and apologized. “The internal processes failed to stop this fraud." 

Elder tipped off the Attorney General's office in April which then obtained search warrants, including for Stapleton's SE Heights home and APS headquarters. .

Search warrant here. Search warrant highlights here. Stapleton bio here.

But it wasn't only APS coming under scrutiny for the latest corruption shocker. What about the state Public Education Department (PED)? AWOL? And where were the last three state auditors, asked many observers. 

That office is charged with auditing the schools or approving of outsider auditors to do so. Dem Attorney General Balderas, who is in command of this investigation, served as Auditor when the scheme allegedly began in 2012. He was followed by Dem Tim Keller, now ABQ Mayor, who was followed by current Auditor Brian Colón. 

Keller did wave a red flag over APS in 2016 when the school system relocated the Internal Audit Unit to the Accounting Office which he said would weaken the unit. But no one apparently came close to suspecting Stapleton of the racketeering and money laundering which the AG says she engaged in. 

Perhaps that's a sign that she kept the illegal operation close to her vest and that the circle will not expand much beyond her. Still, previous APS Superintendents and others will come under close scrutiny and grilled on what happened. 

During a previous APS finance mess, it was proposed that the school system, with a budget of well over $1 billion when federal funding is included, hire an Inspector General to supervise the cash flow as is done in New York and LA.

One concern: If Stapleton was indeed conducting a rogue operation, are others going unnoticed and that brighter lights would expose? 


Alright, let's get to what you want to know--the political impact. 

Will Stapleton resign and when? 

If, as expected, the AG files official charges against her, the odds of a resignation go way up. With 26 years of legislative service she would be entitled to a state pension of about $26,000 a year plus a pension from her $78,000 APS job that would be in the $60,000 range. If she is convicted of a felony those pensions are rescinded. We are checking to see if the law now allows pensions that are collected before a conviction to be revoked if a public official is eventually convicted. 

However, she is known for digging in and a trial or plea bargain could be many months away. If she stays, the end could come in the June 2022 Democratic primary for her House seat. Not to say that her trial could not end in an acquittal but that trial could be a year or more away.

What happens to her leadership position? 

In the chaotic aftermath of the search warrant raid no one really knows. House Dems are still digesting the news and feeling the shock waves. But there is one possible solution floating. 

That would be to have the House Dem Caucus tap outgoing State Rep. Daymon Ely as a temporary House Majority Leader. That would spare the Dems the unenviable task of picking an immediate replacement for Stapleton and dealing with infighting. Ely could keep the position through the the November '22 election, the theory goes. 

On the other hand, ambitious House members may want a permanent replacement and soon. There's little question that the party must soon strip Stapleton of her title to minimize the political fallout. 

What happens to her House seat if she resigns? 

She represents District 19 in the uber-liberal House District 19 in the ABQ SE Heights. If she resigns the Dem controlled Bernalillo County Commission will name her replacement. There would sure to be a crowded field of progressives applying. Dem Party Vice-Chair David Montoya is one of the first to say he is in the race.

Can the Republican Party take advantage of the scandal?

Chairman Pearce
It could and should but it is off to a very anemic start. This statement had the Alligators and Wall-Leaners scratching their heads:

Elected officials at all levels ask for and receive public trust. It's one of the most basic elements of successful self-governance. When that trust is violated by any elected official, it affects the public trust of all elected officials. The allegations against Rep. Williams Stapleton involve this public trust and as such must be taken seriously, but not all of the facts are out. We must wait for more information and for the investigation to take its course. If the allegations prove true, they are a disturbing violation of the sacred public trust.

Two of the three leading GOP candidates for the '22 Guv nomination--Zanetti and Dow—were quiet on social media about the sensational news but Jay Block hit the Republican mark, calling for Stapleton to resign. “The state is full of corruption. . . .These career politicians don’t care about us, just lining their pockets,” Block blasted. 

Analysts offered a variety of theories for the GOP's vanilla response. 

1. Maybe they feared being blasted as racists if they went after Stapleton hard. Better to wait. 

2. The scandal involves a private company's contract with APS and the GOP is all about privatizing education. The news disrupts that cherished GOP notion. 

3. What if the investigation widens into other contractors that could snare Republicans? So take it slow.

Take your pick. For whatever reason, the GOP again showed a lack of nimbleness that is essential if they're to have a shot at taking out MLG. 

One GOP consultant said the fresh scandal was a prime opportunity lost by the R's to hammer the state's Dems over this alleged corruption as well as allegations of bid rigging at CYFD.

What about the Governor? 

Her statement was actually stronger than the GOP's led by Chair Steve Pearce. She didn't break into a full run to get away from Stapleton but she did trot:

 I am deeply, deeply troubled by the reports about a law enforcement investigation into Rep. Stapleton. People are innocent until proven otherwise, and I know investigators will follow the facts wherever they lead. I await more information like all New Mexicans. But I will say that public confidence in government is seriously damaged by even the appearance of impropriety, or illegal activity, which is why public officials must always hold themselves to the highest possible standard of behavior. New Mexicans expect and deserve elected officials who, regardless of party, will put the people before themselves. Anything less violates a sacred public trust and must be dealt with accordingly.

Not earthshaking, but enough in light of the GOP holding their punches. And the hint of the beginnings of a push to ease out Stapleton came with the line, "damaged by even the appearance of impropriety."

Does this news give AG Balderas a reprieve from the ethics complaint filed against him over the PNM Avangrid merger? 

For a while but on the same day his agents searched Stapleton's home news came that the Public Regulation Commission staff has determined that Balderas must respond to the conflict charges he calls "frivolous." Over the short term the story could hibernate but the long term implications remain. The AG did make a good pivot away from his troubles with the Stapleton case.  

How will this impact the upcoming APS School Board election?

For the first time the school board voting will take place at a regular election--the city election November 2--instead of the traditional February time. The law was changed to increase voter participation and it will surely do that. And the narrative for that election is set. What will the candidates for the four seats on the ballot do to prevent future scandals that besmirch the reputation of the state's largest school system? The low-key election is suddenly higher profile with the media and public looking for answers.

Down the list of importance but still coming up: Will the Sheryl Williams Stapleton African American Performing Arts Center at the Fairgrounds lose her name? 

If she is convicted that could happen. Former Dem State Senator Manny Aragon lost the honor of having a building named for him at the Hispanic Cultural Central when he was convicted of corruption charges. 


Stapleton turns 64 tomorrow on what will be one of her most unhappiest of birthdays. She was born in the Virgin Islands, moved to NY then Chicago and on to ABQ. Investigators are checking her Virgin Islands bank account as they explore money laundering charges. 

She holds a Ph.D in education, started out as an elementary teacher and worked herself up to a top administrative APS post. She is a formidable personality who fellow politicos are careful not to tangle with. She's politically savvy, too, having served a stint as state Dem Party Chair. The search warrant also notes that she may have used her powerful legislative position to direct funds to the education program she was allegedly looting for that cool million.

Who will Rep. Stapleton lawyer up with? Not known yet but Dem trial attorney Sam Bregman would seem a natural. Or maybe Bob Gorence, another aggressive advocate. Only those who can stand the hottest temperatures in the political kitchen need apply. (Ahmed Assed is quoted as her current attorney.)

We mentioned earlier this week that Democrats must be wary of corruption allegations when their majorities are this fat, or risk losses at the ballot box. Do we need to repeat that?


We led off the Wednesday blog with news that ABQ attorney Vince Ward was a leading candidate to become the next US Attorney for New Mexico. But Ward came with a statement in response to that report that he has withdrawn from the running. His explanation is now on the Wednesday blog. 

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dateline DC: Leading Contender Withdraws From US Attorney Consideration; Xochitl Hearing For Top AG Job Set And Leger Fernandez Brings Home Some Bacon  

Vince Ward
Vince Ward was a leading candidate for US Attorney but shortly after we posted a report about that we received this: .

 I recently withdrew my name from consideration because during the application process DOJ and the Government Ethics Office determined that one of my firm's cases (not a criminal case and not a case in NM) presented a conflict. I worked for several weeks to find a solution to the conflict without success. I am disappointed, but confident that the administration and delegation are vetting a diverse pool of candidates who believe the US Attorney's Office is an important tool for combatting violent crime in NM, promoting civil rights, especially with respect to instances of police misconduct, and strengthening the government-to-government relationship with the many sovereign Nations located around our beautiful State. I appreciate everyone who provided support and advice throughout the arduous vetting process, and I am sorry to disappoint them. 

We had earlier blogged that. . . 

An ABQ lawyer with a distinctly liberal pedigree is the leading contender to become the next US attorney for New Mexico, according to senior sources. Vince Ward, 46, a 2001 UNM School of Law grad, would also be the first African-American to hold the important law enforcement position. 


Rep. Leger Fernandez
Keeping your blog in DC this Tuesday, word there is that the Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing for former southern Dem Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small will take place Thursday morning. She has been nominated by the president for the position of Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development.

And northern US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez had no problem scooping up $74 million in "earmarks" for her sprawling district. Earmarks are back on the Hill after a decade long absence. 

The freshman Democratic lawmaker used most of her cash--$67 million--for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. The cost of the years-long project that aims to bring reliable water service to more of the Navajo Reservation as well as Gallup has risen to $1.7 billion. A portion of the project has been built. Full completion is predicted for 2029. Leger Fernandez also secured $879,000 for broadband for Española. 

She said:

"I look forward to the Senate reaffirming their commitment to community reflected in our appropriations bills.” This year, the Appropriations Committee allowed each Member of Congress to request funding for up to 10 projects in their community for FY2022 and retained decision making authority to choose projects funded.

The other four members of the state's congressional delegation will also benefit from the return of earmarks. Their appropriations have not yet been announced.


Uh-oh. More government-funded jobs. The economic diversification crowd is going to fall out of their summer hammocks: 

National engineering firm BlueHalo will invest $60 million in a 200,000-square-foot innovation and manufacturing center for space technology and “directed energy” systems at Kirtland Air Force Base, the company announced. The new facility, expected to open in fall 2022, will be the first industrial tenant to set up shop at a planned 70-acre mixed-use site known as MaxQ, which is currently under development on Kirtland property along the south side of Gibson between Carlisle and Truman.

The salaries are in the $90,000 range. Why would you want to "diversify" away from that?

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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

CYFD Scandal: Would Dems Let R's Off This Light? Allegations Of Rigged Contract And Retaliation Cripple Agency Leadership While MLG Is Hands-Off, Plus: AG Responds To Corruption Charges Leveled By Enviros 

CYFD Sec. Brian Blalock (Searchlight NM)
The burgeoning scandal at the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) involving allegations of a rigged contract to update software and retaliation against whistleblowers who have been questioning the deal has been flying under the radar. But it is a big deal for one of the most crucial cabinet departments in a state riddled with child abuse. 

Pressure may be starting to mount on MLG for sticking to a hands-off posture as the headlines continue to blaze. Reader Anne McKinney writes:

If we had a Republican Governor and a Republican dominated House and Senate, Democrats would be out for "blood," requesting the removal of Secretary Blalock, a clean up and full investigation and major changes at CYFD. However with the good halo and support for Governor MLG and ranks closed, mum seems to be the word. Red flag after red flag is overlooked and okay with all. This is not the way to improve child welfare in NM. 

Some details:

At least half a dozen high-level employees have been reprimanded, resigned or were fired after they raised questions about Binti Inc., the Oakland, California-based tech company now tasked with overhauling the computer system. “I felt like I was doing the right thing by raising these issues, and instead I was let go,” said one of the departed workers who asked not to be named for fear of further retaliation. Some of the employees expressed concerns that Binti had not undergone a proper analysis or review. Others worried whether a company that was little more than a year old when it won the contract could be trusted to modernize one of the state’s most critical and complex systems. Still other staffers questioned why Binti was selected without a competitive bidding process. 

CYFD denies any retaliation but:

Two former employees — Debra and Cliff W. Gilmore — filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming they were wrongfully terminated in part because they asked questions about Binti. The Gilmores, who were hired in late 2020 to fill high-level positions, had both repeatedly questioned the Binti contract, according to CYFD emails.

If there is a wire job for the $16 million contract, here's how it went down, according to an ethics complaint filed with the AG, Auditor and Ethics Commission

The path to hiring a vendor changed direction in early 2019 when (now CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian) Blalock and his wife, Linnea Forsythe, were recruited from their jobs in San Francisco to work for Gov.  Lujan Grisham, the complaint states. Forsythe became the Long Term Care ombudsman, but has since moved to the post of interim director of the Governor’s Commission on Disability. Months after his appointment as CYFD Cabinet secretary in 2019, Blalock “pressured CYFD staff to contract with a specific vendor, Binti, for New Mexico’s multi-million dollar CCWIS (comprehensive child welfare information services) project,” the complaint states. It also alleges Blalock told a CYFD chief information officer at the time that his wife “is good friends with the owner” of Binti. Binti’s CEO told the Journal she is not friends with Blalock’s wife, and has met her once, a couple of months ago. 

Then there's the Blalock Bockade featuring secret government communications. But that's another story. 

This is another disappointing and worrisome corruption allegation coming on the heels of those leveled against the attorney general. Blalock was seen as a star addition to CYFD, bringing a badly needed set of outside eyes to an historically troubled department. Now he is mired in muck and has outlived his effectiveness. MLG has let other cabinet secretaries go for lesser reasons. Can't she pull the trigger and get on with a needed culture change at CYFD?


And on the topic of the AG's problems. . .

Attorney General Hector Balderas came with an op-ed response to that ethics complaint filed against him by enviros, including New Energy Economy headed by Mariel Nanasi, over the proposed merger of PNM and Avangrid. However, Balderas does not address the specifics of the corruption allegations made in the complaint that center on his relationship with attorney Marcus Rael from the law firm Robles, Rael & Anaya. Instead Balderas dismisses the complaint as "frivolous:"

The Santa Fe special-interest group opposing the transition took to accusing me of corruption because its principal is so insistent on getting her way, in the face of overwhelming support for the transaction, that she filed a frivolous complaint. This is the same individual who ostracized herself during the passage of the state’s landmark clean-energy legislation, the Energy Transition Act, again because she did not get her way. Let me be clear – this deal will bring hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico and actually replace our existing utility with a clean, well-capitalized company, and has centered the needs of Indigenous and poor communities. 

The complaint against Balderas filed with the State Ethics Commission and State Auditor asserts that Balderas switched his position in favor of the Avangrid/PNM merger after visits to him by Rael who had been hired by Iberdrola, the parent of Avangrid. Rael's firm has been awarded a number of contracts to handle major cases for the AG's office. 

The complaint describes Balderas and Rael as "personal friends." The pair went to UNM Law at the same time and they once practiced law together. 

The AG says his shift on Avangrid came because the corporation made consumer-friendly changes to the merger agreement that he negotiated.

It's probably a good time to reiterate that Democrats, by far the state's majority party, don't get thrown out of office for their ideas. They get the swift kick when they bungle management of government and corruption charges--real or alleged--start to stack up. Just sayin'.

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Monday, July 26, 2021

Downtown ABQ Soccer Stadium Put On Fast Track: Keller Wants Nov. Bond Vote But Foes Try To Slow Rush, Plus: All Judges Recused From Hearing Manny Public Money Case; Supremes To Appoint Judge, And: More Political Pain For AG Balderas  

Before we get going please note that Joe Diaz has just issued a flash flood warning for New Mexico political news. We'll do our best to not get stuck in a roaring arroyo as we wade through this unusual summer event, so off we go. . . 

The political angle on the weekend announcement by Mayor Keller that he will seek city council approval of a $50 million bond issue to build a stadium for the United NM soccer team has opponents complaining that besides being a questionable expenditure Keller is trying to stack the deck for the November 2 mayoral election where he faces Sheriff Manny Gonzales. (Video of Keller announcement here.) 

Soccer fans tend to be younger thus presumably lean Democratic and are not a high voting group. Bringing them into the mayoral election to back a stadium bond is seen as a boost for Keller. On the other hand, the prospect of an expensive downtown stadium could wake up conservative voters who will come out to vote against the plan and perhaps vote for Gonzales. 

Opponents of the downtown stadium point out that ABQ voters rejected one at a 2001 special election. It was sold as a means of "revitalizing" the battered area when Mayor Jim Baca pushed the concept. Instead voters approved a $10 million bond to renovate ABQ Isotopes Park, a decision that has stood the test of time. 

As much as they are popular today, the future for NM United could be iffy, if the history of other minor league sports franchises here are any indication. Only one has lasted of the many tried, that being the minor league Isotopes who were preceded by the popular ABQ Dukes. 


Downtown at 2nd and Iron is one of several proposed locations for the stadium as outlined by outside consultants for the city. Coal and Broadway near downtown is another. The Railyards and 12th and I-40 are also mentioned. The study is here.

Putting a stadium downtown, however, would have negligible impact on the down and out downtown which is ensnared in crime, homelessness and has a reputation as a place to stay away from, argues former City Councilor Greg Payne:

"Downtown revitalization" should consist of cleaning up the area, get people living there and make it safe. How about doing that before building a stadium of 10 to 12 thousand that will not even come close to paying for itself? I've been watching these downtown schemes since the 70's. If we are going to have a stadium, why not put it at the sports complex on University where you already have the baseball stadium, the UNM football stadium and the basketball Pit? 

Or another possibility. End governmental tribalism and reach an accord to tear down the aged Tingley Coliseum on the state fairgrounds and build a new multipurpose arena that could host large concerts, soccer, other sports teams and the many NM Expo events. Besides being a showcase for the entire state, Santa Fe could put up a much larger share of the financing of that venture than for a downtown stadium.

The city council in August must approve the $50 million bond issue for it to make the Nov. 2 ballot which also for the first time features ABQ School Board elections that will also spike Democratic turnout. The total stadium cost is put at about $70 million.

The bond would not raise taxes but it would reduce bonding capacity for other vital infrastructure projects such as roads. 

United NM has brought much joy to the city in its short time but asking voter approval of a $50 million bond issue just three months from now looks like a rush job, if not an outright political ploy by the incumbent mayor. 


While a dedicated soccer stadium could be a White Elephant in the city's future, the current state of city budgetary affairs is solid, according to the latest bond ratings. 

The city has earned an Aa3 general obligation (GO) and gross receipt tax (GRT) rating from Moody’s Investors Services—a positive outlook. . . Obligations rated Aa3 are judged to be of high quality and are subject to very low credit risk. 

The bond rating may be obscure to some, but many voters in city elections tilt toward the affluent and are quite aware of their importance. For Keller that's another reason he is in the driver's seat so far in his bid for a second term. 

MAYOR 2021

Eddy Aragon
All the ABQ district court judges have recused themselves from hearing the appeal of BernCo Sheriff Manny Gonzales' public financing case. That means the state Supreme Court will appoint an outside judge to hear the sheriff's appeal of the decision by the city clerk to deny him taxpayer money for his mayoral bid and that should happen this week.

The clerk denied Gonzales $661,000 in public financing because of forgeries involving those $5 donations from individual voters that his campaign was required to collect. The sheriff's campaign has admitted there was forgery of signatures. Keller has qualified for the public cash. 

Also, we've learned that Megan McMillan, a top campaign aide to Gonzales and who the Keller camp asserts was a key player in forging signatures, has left the campaign. Whether she has lawyered up is a matter of speculation.

Then there's radio talker Eddy Aragon, who earlier started a mayoral campaign but then abandoned it, now announcing that he's launching a last minute effort to qualify for the Nov. 2 mayoral ballot. Aragon points out that for the first time there is no Republican choice for mayor and more importantly there is no conservative. So Aragon is trying to collect the required 3,000 petition signatures by the August 10 deadline to make the ballot. Fat chance, says veteran field consultant Steve Cabiedes:

Eddy will need a large and expensive field operation to get 3,000 good signatures. To get there he will need to collect 4,000 or more. He must have paid staff to get the job done in such short order. Volunteers won't cut it. 

So it appears the mayoral derby will stay a two man duel, but we'll keep you posted in case Eddy surprises.


Balderas & Colón
More trouble for Attorney General Hector Balderas. The latest:

Balderas' handling of a now-settled case involving a large solar company is raising concerns. Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely is asking State Auditor Brian Colón, who is a friend of Balderas, to investigate why the attorney general agreed to seal all documents in the case against Vivint Solar Inc. The lawmaker also wants to know why Balderas didn't pursue any specific restitution for thousands of customers as part of the settlement reached last fall. Balderas also is facing a separate ethics complaint in a multibillion-dollar utility merger case that will affect half a million customers in New Mexico.

Hector's explanation for sealing the documents in the solar case is on the linked news story.

And Mariel Nasani of the progressive New Energy Economy comes with this: 

I’m filing an application for a subpoena at the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to take the deposition of attorney Marcus Rael at the Avangrid/Iberdrola/PNM merger hearing. On the same day you wrote your blog about Rael's dealings in this matter, we updated our complaint to the State Ethics Commission, the Disciplinary Board of NM, and the State Auditor. It discusses that Rael was both the attorney for the AG, the People of the State of New Mexico, and Iberdrola. Whose interest was he representing? Additionally, Marcus Rael was the attorney representing Bernalillo County while Marcus Rael was also representing Iberdrola. Again, was he representing the interests of the people of Bernalillo County or Iberdrola? When you see the terrible merger stipulation you see that the people are getting screwed. 

That's a tricky referral for State Auditor Brian Colón, arguably Balderas' best friend who worked for the Robles, Anaya & Rael firm for 12 years. Ethics experts could have fun with this one. The full complaint against the AG over his contracting with Rael and that is now on Colón's desk is here

Colón's office says they “always contemplate any and all potential conflicts of interest and proceed accordingly and consistently with professional standards” but refused to say whether Colón or an outside auditor would investigate the complaint.

Meanwhile, a California environmental publication--Capital & Main--has dived in to the controversy over Balderas and Rael with the headline:

New Mexico Attorney General Faces Fraud, Corruption Allegations Amid Power Company Merger Civic and environmental groups accuse AG Hector Balderas of improper dealings with a lawyer and longtime friend.   

And a correction on Hector's political history. We blogged that he was "appointed" State Auditor in 2006 by Gov. Richardson. Actually, he was nominated by the state Dems to replace Auditor Jeff Armijo on the November  ballot. Armijo had resigned amid a sex abuse scandal involving two women. Balderas went on to get elected in '06 and re-elected auditor in 2010. We covered all of that ad nauseam back in '06 but what stuck with us this month was that Richardson had cleared the field for Balderas and the Dem Party Central Committee went along. But that was not an "appointment." Here's a bunch of our coverage from back in '06 on the then sensational scandal that brought Balderas to statewide prominence.   

Balderas and Colón once plotted to take over the highest rungs of power in La Politica. Now it's a game of survival for the duo with Colón's hopes of winning the '22 Dem nomination for attorney general hanging by a thread and Balderas hoping to escape more serious damage before his term ends next year. 

Whew! The flash flood warning for La Politica has now expired. Please stay tuned to this station for further developments. 

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Thursday, July 22, 2021

Time For Another Edition Of Reader Vox Populi; Readers Write Of City Election, Keeping Campaign Staff Honest, Cops And Crime And AG Woes 

It's been a while but the always popular Reader Vox Populi is back. Let's kick it off with this interesting take on campaign staff stemming from those forged signatures found on the forms for the Manny Gonzales mayoral campaign to qualify for $661,000 in public financing. From a Santa Fe reader:

Time and again campaign staff cut corners but have no professional organization or ethics rules to contend with. We really need the legislature to consider putting campaign staff under the ethics commission with the ability to fine or suspend them from being paid as consultants. And we need to tighten the Hatch Act that keeps federal employees out of campaigns. 

One congressional staffer here skirted rules on district directors by consulting local campaigns until they finally clamped down this year. And a state employee ran an independent committee against House Speaker Brian Egolf while being paid as a land commission staffer. Campaign staff could do with an ethics overhaul.

We pointed out that this will be the first time since ABQ adopted the mayor form of government in 1974 that there will be no Republican mayoral candidate on the ballot. To which we get this sharp retort from John Rey:
Hello Joe, What do you call Manny Gonzales? Anyone who hires Republican consultant Jay McCleskey, as Manny did, is a Republican. They are all wolves in sheep’s clothing. Elections have become nothing more than a money grab and Movida handouts! 


Reader Alicia Hicks writes: 

Hey Joe, I was reading that the murder rate increase is nationwide, according to the FBI, not just an Albuquerque thing. However, APD is getting the reputation for not being as vigilant as they were before. I’m seeing a number of people posting on inaction when calls are made to APD or an air of nonchalance about the issue involved. It’s almost like they are sulking about something.

Reader Don Miller takes on the ABQ crime crisis:

There appears to be consensus that at least a part of the solution is to increase the number of sworn police officers. I took a look at annual budgets for APD to ascertain the rate of increase of sworn police officers. 

In FY 2007 the city budget states that "the sworn police force continues to be funded at 1,100 officers.” The FY 2022 budget states: “The proposed FY/22 General Fund civilian count is 592 and sworn count is 1,100” Over the same period, the Department budget increased from $130.5 million to $223.4 million, a little over 71%, and full time employees increased from 1,529 to 1,706, a little over 11%. Last I heard, the number of sworn police officers is still below 1,100. My simple question is, why has the number of sworn police officers not increased for at least 17 years while their budget has increased by 71%? 

For one thing, Don, city police have been given large pay hikes over the years, the most recent as the result of an increase in the city's gross receipts tax. 


A retired ABQ attorney writes of our Wednesday blog on Attorney General Hector Balderas: 

Joe, That was quite a post on your blog about our AG. You declared him dead and went ahead and buried him while the body was still warm. I am not quite ready to declare him deceased, although he clearly has sustained a wound. Remains to be seen how serious the wound is, but you aren't even waiting to finish him off. Quite interesting reading. 

Thanks for that but this isn’t our first rodeo. We know when a rider has been tossed from the bull.

Dan Klein comes with this on the same topic:

Great blog. You put it all back together with former APD Chief Ray Schultz and Taser. Had AG  Balderas acted on Schultz back then, APD would not be in the mess it is today. We never needed the DOJ, what we needed was for Balderas and Mayor RJ Berry to do their jobs, which they both failed to do. Balderas because he was too connected to Schultz and Berry because he was a bumbler. Which brings me to 2021 and why we str still waiting for the State Auditor and Attorney General to announce something regarding their investigations into APD overtime and payroll issues? Colon passed the investigation to Balderas for criminal issues that his office discovered. Colon’s office has been auditing APD for months and yet both the Auditor and Attorney General are silent on what they have found. 

Klein says he has had recent contact with Auditor Colon and his office tells him their report on APD overtime abuses will be released "soon.”


An ABQ reader writes: 

 Hi Joe, I'm a fan and avid reader of the blog. I understand (Bernalillo County District Attorney) Torrez branded himself as a progressive and apparently has that image. I would encourage you to speak with sources within the judiciary and public defender's office to ascertain whether he has done one progressive thing since being elected 5 years ago. And, the corollary question, has he done things that indicate he is not progressive. I'm not weighing in on the AG run, there are very good reasons why neither of the two Democratic gentlemen is upstanding and worthy of our trust. I'm simply saying Raul Torrez and progressive is a complete misnomer. Perhaps you can put out a call for a seasoned AG candidate with high integrity. 

Thanks for the insights. We welcome your comments, criticisms and plaintive cries of existential angst at the usual email address. 

Reporting from ABQ, I am Joe Monahan and. . . 

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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A Sad And Unseemly End For Once Rising Political Star Hector Balderas; Exposé Of Money Connections In PNM-Avangrid Merger Sends AG To A Final Fall 

Attorney General Balderas
It's a sad and unseemly ending for Attorney General Hector Balderas, a once rising political star who has been taken down by progressives after being exposed for appearing to sell out his office to a law school buddy and his politically connected powerhouse law firm. 

Balderas, 47, is term limited when he finishes his second four year term next year and did not have any known plans of seeking another office, but there will be no resurrection at a later date, not after the sharp nails placed in his political coffin.

The end came when the aforementioned progressives were enraged over Balderas backing off from setting tougher conditions for Avangrid's proposed merger with PNM. 

PNM is the state's largest utility and the merger is under consideration at the Public Regulation Commission. Avangrid is owned by the Spanish corporation Iberdrola.

That's where Marcus Rael, Jr. of the politically connected law firm Robles, Rael & Anaya comes in to what is an ugly picture. Besides graduating together from UNM Law in 2001, Rael and Balderas briefly practiced law together. 

The facts:

--Iberdrola hired Rael in February, prior to a hearing with the Public Regulation Commission. Rael held 18 meetings at the Attorney General’s office between his hiring and April 5. For his services, Iberdrola paid him $400 an hour, almost double his regular rate with the attorney general’s office.

--Invoices and contracts from the attorney general’s office obtained by New Energy Economy and shared with Searchlight show more than $3 million in direct payments of fees and expenses to Robles, Rael & Anaya (since 2015). 

--On April 2, Balderas told the Journal that he had concerns about the merger’s lack of benefits for utility customers and worried about utility profits leaving the state. Experts for the state recommended massive changes, including doubling customers’ credits. . .Days after those recommendations were filed with the PRC, Rael paid one last visit to Balderas’ office. . . A few weeks later, Balderas signed onto a tentative merger deal that fell dramatically short of what expert witnesses had suggested — a pivot from his earlier critiques. 

--Robles, Rael & Anaya have donated more than $36,000 to Balderas since his first run for public office in 2005 — more contributions than from almost any other entity.

Robles, Rael & Anaya have a myriad of contracts with local governments in the state and this unmasking of its political connections is not the first.

In August of 2017, questions were raised on the blog about why Balderas had not pursued the scandal involving ABQ Police Chief Ray Schultz and his dealings with the Taser company. It appeared Schultz had rigged a city contract with APD and Taser. It was investigated by then State Auditor Tim Keller who in 2015 forwarded his report to Balderas for action. The AG never took any. From that blog:

Why, if he is so intent on fighting for the taxpayers, has he yet to do anything with the corruption investigation involving former APD Chief Ray Schultz and his dealings with Taser? It has been a couple of years since Auditor Keller dumped his damning investigation into Hector's lap which said it appeared ABQ's purchase of Taser's products was rigged by Schultz and perhaps others.

Current State Auditor Brian Colón, a best friend of Balderas, was employed at Robles, Rael and Anaya which was defending Schultz at the time of the scandal, furthering the criticism of Balderas that he was being swayed to not pursue the charges by Marcus Rael and also Colón. When he ran for mayor in 2017 Colón said he did no work on city of ABQ contracts while at the firm.


The Schultz case was an epic moment in city and state political history. Why? Because if AG Balderas had busted open the corruption at APD it could have made way for a new culture to take hold and with it a new approach to the crime crisis. Today we have the same change resistant culture and a historic crime wave to boot. 

After that Balderas boasted of taking down corrupt actors state Senator Phil Griego and Sec. of State Dianna Duran but Duran was a gambling addict, a Republican and easy pickings. Ditto for the bumbling Griego who misused his Senate office by rigging a real estate deal. 

The walk the AG took on Avangrid is also of historic proportions, involving future millions in profits and utility bills. Unlike Taser, Balderas has been called to account. 

With an affable and humble public persona, Balderas, who grew up dirt poor in Wagon Mound, turned into one of the state's most popular political figures. He was elected State Auditor in 2006 after Auditor Jeff Armijo fell victim to a scandal and resigned. The Dem Party named Balderas the nominee. Balderas won election that year, was re-elected in 2010 and in 2014 it was off to the attorney general's office for two terms 

In between he challenged Dem US Senator Martin Heinrich in the 2012 primary but never attacked Heinrich. He lost but maintained his viability. He then toyed with running for Governor in 2018 but backed off in the face of a strong candidacy from MLG.

Now the last entry on his political resume has been made. It's sad and somewhat tragic. Young, smart, native New Mexican men who connect widely don't often seek political careers and they are the potential agents of change the state needs to reverse its poor standings. 

Hector Balderas rode high and mighty and then crashed and burned. He isn't the first to make that trip but that doesn't make it easier for the hundreds of thousands who placed their faith in him to witness the wreckage.


 Colón And Balderas
The downfall of Balderas is a blow to his BFF Colón, 50, who is now seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2022. His main rival is Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez, a favorite of mostly progressives, while Colón is more at home with the moderate Dems who are now outnumbered in the primary. Colón's association with Rael is bound to be a sore point after the progressive takedown of the AG, making it that much more difficult to defeat Torrez. 

Not that the DA doesn't have financial connections that Colón could turn against him, namely that $107,000 in support a committee backing him received from progressive billionaire George Soros when he first ran for DA in 2016. A number of progressives are not happy with Torrez carrying the progressive label, saying he has turned his back on them.


With Balderas, the chief consumer advocate for utility ratepayers sidelined, the PNM merger deserves even more scrutiny by the Public Regulation Commission. New Energy Economy, which promotes renewables, has been holding Avangrid's feet to the fire while the company conducts an expensive advertising onslaught to convince the public of the merger's merits. After what happened to the AG following the money of all those involved in the deal will be a must. 


When we finished the first draft of the blog Tuesday the question of Sheriff Manny Gonzales would appeal the city ruling denying him public financing was still unanswered. Later it was announced Gonzales will appeal the denial to district court. More on the updated Tuesday blog. . . 

Notable public official Herb Hughes died at the age of 90 this month. He was a Republican who served on the ABQ city council as well as top positions in state government. 

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Gonzales To Appeal Decision As City Reaffirms Rejection of Taxpayer Campaign Funds; Insiders Gauge His Chances Of Getting Private Cash, Plus: Senators Cervantes And Candelaria Make Headlines; Political Consequences?  

Word arrived after we published that Gonzales will indeed appeal the city's denial of public financing of his campaign to district court:

We are not surprised that the hearing officer handpicked by Keller’s city clerk rubber-stamped the decision made by the city clerk. We will be appealing to district court, which is where we always believed this will ultimately be decided,” the Gonzales campaign said.

Manny Gonzales held his fire in the immediate aftermath of a city hearing officer's ruling that upheld the denial of $661,000 in public financing for his mayoral campaign. The BernCo sheriff did not say whether he would take the avenue of last resort--an appeal to district court--to gain the funding that could be critical to his hopes to upset Mayor Tim Keller at the Nov. 2 election. 

An appeal would present opportunity but also legal treachery. Top campaign aides would have to explain under oath how no crime was committed even though the campaign admits some voter donation signatures were forged to get Gonzales enough of the $5 contributions to qualify for public financing.

Supporters of Gonzales were maintaining that even if he ends up not getting the public money, he could still raise enough private cash to be competitive with Keller. Former GOP BernCo County Commissioner Michael Wiener asserted:

There is plenty of money to be raised. The anger level over crime and the direction of the city is also there. I think Manny could tap into that. Raising $500,000 is not out of the question, even though there is the issue of time hanging over his head.

An outside committee supporting Gonzales this month reported $85,000 in cash on hand while one supporting Keller had about $18,000. 

Still, the city's decision to deny him public financing and the Gonzales campaign admission of forgeries have taken their toll. A Senior Alligator contemplating events said;

Gonzales commits forgery and then says he's the guy to fight crime? The optics don't match. I think it's enough to finish him off. 

There's no public polling yet to back up the various opinions on the state of the race. Meanwhile, the city awaits Gonzales' next move.


We checked in with state elections expert and ABQ Dem State Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto to get a clear picture on that proposal outlined here to have the ABQ Inspector General take over the verification of public finance donations for mayor and city council candidates in light of the mess that has occurred this election 

Ivey Soto says the city has purview over the finance system and "can do  anything it wants." However the county clerk has purview over the nominating petitions for city candidates and the city can't change that. 

The problem is not with the nominating petitions but with the $5 individual donations and accompanying signatures to qualify for public financing--over $660,000 for a mayoral canadiate and in the neighborhood of $40,000 for city council contenders. 

Beefing up the check of the donations is seen by political pros as a step to preserve the integrity and confidence of public financing. Following the Nov. 2 election would be the time to begin a debate at the city council. 


State Senator Joe Cervantes is a moderate Democrat who has upset the newly empowered progressives at the legislature. But his denial of communion by the Archbishop of Las Cruces may have a political benefit for the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We asked a Santa Fe Wall-Leaner to explain:

Joe is resented by progressives for dragging his feet on legalized marijuana and other bills that went before his Judiciary Committee. There's been much talk of a progressive Dem primary challenger running against him when he comes up for re-election again in 2024. The national publicity that he generated for revealing he had been denied communion for supporting the repeal of an anti-abortion law at the last legislative session is drawing progressive eyes and he is getting favorable reviews for protesting his denial of communion. We'll have to wait and see if that helps him avoid a potential progressive primary challenge. But right now he may be making some hay.

And what about the latest outburst from ABQ Dem Senator Jacob Candelaria against Gov. Lujan Grisham, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart? He attacks what he calls the "white progressive elite ambivalence" over queer people and people of color. The ABQ Westside lawmaker says other stuff as well that had reporter Daniel Chacon strapping on his muck boots and diving in. Let's call in another Senior Gator for their take:

Joe, Jacob has been attacking the Senate leadership and Governor repeatedly. There will have to be a price to pay or else the order in the chamber is going to be upended. Look for Pro Tem Stewart to take Jacob off of the powerful Senate Finance Committee if the antics continue.

Candelaria has resigned from the state senate Dem caucus. No comment from Wirth or Mimi over his latest tongue lashing. 


It's true. This will be the only mayoral election since the founding of ABQ's modern form of government in 1974 when there will be no Republican on the mayoral ballot. It's another sign of the near extinction of the party in Bernalillo County, even though is was only seven years ago--in 2014--that the city elected a GOP mayor. 

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Monday, July 19, 2021

Keller-Gonzales Money Duel Prompts More Calls For Reform Of Finance System; Charges Of Forged Signatures And Fronting Donations Dominate Early Mayoral Sparring 

Gonzales and Keller
Can something good come out of the dog days of summer duel over public financing between Mayor Tim Keller and his challenger Sheriff Manny Gonzales? Well, perhaps it can be prevented from happening again, opine a number of City Hall watchers.

In addition to lowering the number of individual $5 donations required for a mayoral candidate to qualify for the financing, reformers are urging the city to adopt a more robust system to have those donations checked for accuracy and integrity. 

Both the Keller and Gonzales campaigns accuse one another of gaming the system, the Gonzales camp by forging signatures of donors and Keller's campaign by a union head giving $5 donations on behalf of some members. 

The solution? Activate an office every four years in the office of the city Inspector General to check the great majority of the $5 donations and accompanying signatures for authenticity. That takes the task away from the campaigns and the city clerk--a political appointee--whose required checks of signatures and donations are cursory at best. 

Reformers earlier proposed here lowering the number of donations required by the mayoral hopefuls to qualify for over $600,000 in public financing. They pointed out only six candidates (including Keller this year) have done so since 2009. That means candidates with well-oiled machines are the ones able to access public funds, the opposite of what was hoped for when taxpayer campaign funding began.

Currently 3,779 individual donations of $5 each are required but who knows how much cheating has been going on? Checks for authenticity largely depend on the campaigns. To end future imbroglios an office under the Inspector General could check donations and signatures as they come in and raise red flags when appropriate. They could make voter contacts to ensure donations are on the up and up.

The added expense to ensure that the public money is spent as intended would be minimal. The office could also inspect city council public donations every two years. Just establishing a separate check system would inhibit forgery and other issues with the donations as campaigns would know they were being closely monitored. 

The worry that easing the required donations for mayor could lead to a flood of candidates is also unfounded. A requirement of over 2,000 is still a high hurdle. 


As for the present day dispute, Gonzales' campaign owns up to forging some donor signatures but argues they were "mistakes" and he still has 3,779 valid donations even with the bad ones discounted.

A City Hearing Officer Tuesday will make the first determination on whether the decision by City Clerk Ethan Watson to disqualify Gonzales from public financing should stand. If he agrees, Gonzales is expected to appeal to a district court judge who could reinstate the sheriff's public funds, or not. 

The Keller campaign has asked the Inspector General to investigate the donor forgeries and he will make a report by Aug. 16.

We can't be sure that all 3,779 Gonzales donations are valid because no one--not the Keller camp or anyone else--has thoroughly checked each donation. Absent that check a judge could apply a broad standard to avoid infringing on the rights of those who did legitimately donate. 

As for the forgeries being unintentional mistakes, affidavits from the Keller campaign and an investigative news report show otherwise. The Gonzales counter complaint against Keller that a union head fronted donations doesn't stand up as much. The newspaper checked with several firefighters at the meeting where the alleged offense occurred and who the Gonzales camp says had donations made in their names. They all said they had given the $5 themselves. 

Public financing has been partially destroyed by the US Supreme Court allowing outside committees to collect unlimited amounts of money to support their favored mayoral candidates. It's worth preserving but public confidence can fade. An ABQ system riddled with opportunity for cheating is not one that can or should stand the test of time. 


It isn't only Sheriff Gonzales taking a public pasting over his campaign's mismanagement. His twenty something campaign manager, Megan McMillan, granddaughter of the late NM GOP icon Colin McMillan, and Michelle Martinez, an executive assistant to the Sheriff, could be in precarious positions if the District Attorney decides to pursue charges over the forgeries. Keller's campaign accuses them of being responsible for the bulk of the 149 forgeries they uncovered and that the forgeries are fourth degree felonies. McMillan's first campaign management outing was with the successful City Council campaign of Republican Brook Bassan. 

Gonzales' chief consultant, Republican Jay McCleskey, a controversial political figure who was Gov. Martinez's guru, has already been blasted by R's for signing on to the Dem sheriff's campaign. Now, while watching the campaign come apart over the donor controversy, he is in for more hits. "Jay is the only guy who could take a sheriff and make him a criminal," jabbed one of McCleskey's Republican rivals. If that's all the hurt McCleskey suffers from this messy mishap, he'll be most fortunate.


Judge Zamora
From the Guv's office: 

Gov. Lujan Grisham has appointed Briana H. Zamora of the New Mexico Court of Appeals to the state Supreme Court, closing the vacancy left by the Honorable Justice Barbara J. Vigil, who retired. “Judge Zamora is an experienced jurist of the highest caliber with the kind of incredible work ethic mandatory for those who would serve on our state’s highest court,” said MLG. 

Zamora, 47, is the daughter of former ABQ Dem State Sen. Bernadette Sanchez. 

Talk about getting away from it all. President Biden has named former NM Dem US Senator Tom Udall ambassador to New Zealand. That nation's tourism site says it's the place to make "new friends in small towns with big doses of laid-back charm." 

Udall will stay busy there warming up the nation's leaders to Washington. It's not the Sec. of Interior post he lobbied Biden for but certainly a nice, soft landing for the 73 year old. Just make sure someone sends some green chile to Wellington

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Guv And Lawmakers Tussle Over Who Has Power Over Big Pot Of Fed Stimulus And More Cops And Crime 

There's a tug of war between the New Mexico governor and the legislature over who has the power to spend $1.75 billion in federal America Rescue Plan dollars and it appears headed to the courts to resolve. 

Does it have to be that way? Texas Governor Abbott pulled back on his decision to spend $16 billion in federal stimulus on his own and has called a special fall session of the Legislature to divvy up the money. 

On the other hand Arizona Gov. Ducey is taking charge of the spending, apparently without heat from lawmakers. Wednesday he announced $10 million of that state's $4.8 billion in federal largesse will go to advertising and other programs to boost state tourism. Earlier he shoveled $759 million into the state unemployment trust fund 

Is there a middle ground here, with MLG consulting leading lawmakers and getting a consensus before spending the money and avoiding a court battle? They already agree over $300 million of the stimulus should d be used to plug the hole in our state's unemployment fund. 

The NM Governor and the legislature already divide up capital outlay (aka, pork spending) among themselves each year. Why not look at that approach to start getting money out the door?

R's are trying to get the legislature to call itself into an extraordinary session, something that has only been done once in history. But Dem Senators Ortiz y Pino and Candelaria are siding with them. Meanwhile the AG has been asked for his opinion. 

Aside from who has the legal authority, both the Guv and the legislature have the moral authority to be involved in deciding how the huge pot of money will be spent. If the Governor awaits a court win she should still signal that she is willing to share the goodies with elected lawmakers. Right now she looks like she wants to open all of the Christmas packages by herself. How about some old fashioned deal making, Santa Fe? 


Reader David Ryan was one of several who came with this update on the latest polling activity:

Hi Joe, I received a robo telephone poll call (that may have been a push poll) about the upcoming 2022 primary election. The questions seemed to be aligned against MLG. Such as, do you agree with her policy to shut down small business and let big box stores remain open? Later on in the survey there was a question - if the Democratic candidates for governor were Sen. Martin Heinrich or MLG, who would you vote for? (I have paraphrased the questions.) What's your take on who would be doing this type of poll?

Thanks, David. Our take is that the R's are probably behind the survey. Heinrich has no plans to run against her next year, although he has mulled over a future run for governor. 


We continue to get reaction to that statement here from APD union head Shaun Willoughby that police officers do not get respect and that is a cause for the crime wave. Attorney Richard Valdez comes with this: 

APD and the union must think the public doesn't get it.  The public can see that APD refuses court compliance. The public can see that APD had/has the opportunity to comply, and refuses to reform. APD then says the public does not respect the police. APD only has itself to blame for that lack of respect. APD, through its actions and inactions, conveys it does not respect the court or the public. APD in effect, contributes to the raising crime rate. 

APD rejected the responsibility for reform. Now it lacks authority to garner respect. The solution is to have law enforcement actually comply with the reforms instead of resisting the changes mandated by the court. . . . While there are no easy solutions, it is also not lost on the public that all of these entities are being paid by taxpayer money.

The city's homicide rate set a record of 81 in 2019. The number at mid-year this year is near 70.


The city hearing where Sheriff Manny Gonzales will appeal the City Clerk's decision to deny his application for $661,000 in public financing for the mayoral race will take place today at 10 a.m today. The Zoom link is here

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