Thursday, January 19, 2023

Pena Case Gets More Political As APD Chief Blasts Finding At His First Court Appearance, Plus: Pena And The Pretrial Detention Bill, Also: Bregman's Black Hat And Some Blog Bottom Lines  

Pena in court
Solomon Pena has done the near impossible. He's made politicians look sympathetic--and he's the gift that keeps on giving to them. 

In an ABQ Metro Court appearance Wednesday it was revealed that the Arnold Tool--used to determine the danger a criminal defendant poses to the community--suggested that Pena could be released on his own recognizance while awaiting trial, even though he faces multiple charges for the shootings at the homes of elected Democratic officials. 

The Arnold tool said even with a past felony conviction for a smash and grab crime from 2007 and for which he served nearly seven years in prison, Pena could be released. That had APD Chief Harold Medina again pointing his finger at the criminal justice system over the area's high crime rate:

. . .Yet another example that shows why the criminal justice system is broken. Prosecutors will recommend that the suspect in these shootings be held in jail until trial. But a judicial assessment recommends the suspect should be released, even though he is a convicted felon who served time in prison for committing more than a dozen felonies. This suspect is alleged to have hired hitmen to shoot up elected officials’ houses with life-threatening gunfire. While I realize the judicial assessment is just one tool that judges can consider, I believe that tool is fatally flawed. How can we require judges to use this broken tool? We need to fix this process so the public will have faith that we are keeping the community safe from dangerous criminals.

Judge Jill Martinez told a subdued Pena that he will remain in jail without bond while the DA's office preps for a pre-trial detention hearing in district court. ABQ attorney Roberta Yurcic is representing Pena. The next court hearing is scheduled for February 1. 

Chief Medina and many elected officials, including the Governor, are again asking the Legislature for a rebuttable presumption bill for violent offenses that carries an automatic presumption that the person charged is too dangerous for pretrial release. 

At the '22 session that bill was blocked in a senate committee. The Governor pushed it again in her opening address to lawmakers this week but opponents have issues with the constitutionality of the measure and it could be headed for another dead end. 

Or does the Solomon Pena case and another year of record murders in ABQ give it some steam?


On Chief Medina's continued attacks on the criminal justice system, his critics retort that it is his failed policies--a lack of officers, a lack of intensity in street patrols and a lack of arrests for gun crimes--that is a major cause of the crime wave. 

They also fault the city of ABQ's request from the Legislature for millions in overtime pay for the police to pursue 5,000 outstanding felony warrants and 60,000 for misdemeanors in BernCo, calling it yet another scheme to pad overtime pay for APD and one that would have no impact on serious crime. 

Excessive police overtime has been a sore spot at APD for decades and the cases of abuse have continued under Medina. Attorney General Balderas failed to prosecute one of the more astonishing cases. Attorney General Torrez has yet to be heard from on the subject. 


Pena has a checkered employment past with nothing substantial. He lists his last job as a sales rep with a roofing company. But he did take out a $165,000 mortgage in December 2019 to purchase a 1,726 square condominium at Alcalde Place, the high rise located across from KOB and KRQE TV stations where he was arrested this week. 

The picture posted is the inside of his condo when it was on display for sale and before he bought it.  

NBC News reports that the Alcalde homeowners association forced him to remove an anti-Biden flag that included a profanity.

Jose Trujillo, who was arrested in connection with the shooting of the home of Sen. Linda Lopez, was also arrested for possessing 800 fentanyl pills. The vehicle he was in was a Nissan Maxima registered to Pena but the registration had expired. 

Here is a copy of the Pena mortgage.


Judge Jill Martinez, who presided over the nationally watched first court appearance of Pena, was elected to the bench in 2014, winning 50.8 percent of the vote over Republican John Duran. She was retained by voters in the retention elections of of 2018 and 2022. Martinez is a former prosecutor with the BernCo DA's office, as well as a former defense attorney. She is a 2004 University of Idaho Law School graduate.


DA Bregman
Surprise! Newly appointed BernCo District Attorney Sam Bregman says he will personally prosecute the Pena case. That is, if there is a trial and not a plea bargain. 

Bregman, a renowned trial lawyer, said when he took the two year appointment from the Governor that he would do what other DA's rarely do and prosecute cases. No surprise. His love for publicity is equal to his love for the law. 

Bregman has now taken to wearing a black cowboy hat in his public appearances and we fear that our little 'ol blog may be partly to blame. After all, we reminded everyone that back in the day when Bregman ran for state land commissioner he sported a black cowboy hat in his TV commercials.

Now the hat is back, but it's incongruous. Bernalillo County is not Lincoln County where real cowboys live. It is the state's urban center where the suit and tie uniform for prosecutors is still the standard. It is usually tough on crime Republican sheriffs seen sporting the black hat or Cowboys for Trump rabble rousers like Couy Griffin. But a Democratic DA in BernCo?

If the DA insists on wearing his hat real cowboys tell us he needs to start taking it off when he is inside public buildings like the courthouse and the Roundhouse. "Cowboys are gentlemen. We remove our hats when inside," opined one. 

A good tip for all the urban cowboys out there (including DA Sam). And finally, could the DA at least wear a white hat when he goes after Pena? He is the good guy, right? 


Joe Monahan
We quoted outgoing NM House Speaker Brian Egolf as saying no Dem House incumbent lost re-electioon last November. Actually, Rep. Candy Sweetser lost her seat in Deming to Republican Jennifer Jones. However, Egolf's point was that the 45 to 25 Democratic majority before the election stayed exactly the same after. 

Former Speaker Ben Ray Lujan? That eyebrow raiser hit the blog early Wednesday when we quoted a Senior Alligator but the mistake was ours. We've become accustomed to writing about Ben Lujan's son, Senator Ben Ray Lujan. But make no mistake, when it comes to the former speaker it is Ben Lujan--and he was one of a kind. . . 

We found a job for Mark Ronchetti. . . 

KRQE News 13 is looking for a Weekend Meteorologist. The Meteorologist forecast weather conditions and produces and anchors weather reports for all platforms in a manner that is clear, engaging and meaningful to news consumers. This position requires working every weekend. 

Weekends? That's the best we could do, Mark, but it's something. 

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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Roundhouse Rocked On Opening Day: State's Fiscal Direction Takes U Turn As Conservative Lundstrom Is Stripped of Powerful Chairmanship; Liberal Nathan Small Takes The Helm As New Speaker Martinez Consolidates Power And As MLG Pushes For New Spending Amid Historic Surpluses 

Speaker Martinez (Moore, Journal)
Open the floodgates. A huge gusher of money is about to flood through courtesy of a new House Speaker and a Governor unshackled from re-election worries and armed with the most massive cash kitty in New Mexican history. 

The state suddenly and without warning embarked on a new fiscal direction as the '23 legislative session kicked off Tuesday. But it wasn't until late in the day--well after MLG's State of the State address--that the shockwaves rippled from the Roundhouse and out to the entire state. 

That's when word came that Gallup Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, the face of fiscal conservatism and chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, had been stripped of that role and replaced with liberal Rep. Nathan Small, a fourth term lawmaker who is a former Las Cruces city councilor and husband to ex-US Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, who is nearly Lundstrom's polar opposite. 

The power play came from freshly elected House Speaker Javier Martinez only hours after the took the oath of office and the gavel that goes with it. Although it had been rumored that Lundstrom was in trouble for challenging Martinez for the speakership, that talk petered out after Martinez was chosen in December as the Dems nominee. But then Tuesday the rumor became reality, stunning La Politica and this Senior Alligator weighing in from the House floor:

Joe, this was a move by the Speaker to consolidate his power and do it fast. It reminded me of the playbook of former Speaker Ben Lujan. Send a message right away. He must have an unobstructed view for his policies and the respect of the entire legislature--and now Speaker Martinez has both.

The Martinez message is as clear as the mountain air in Angel Fire: The Democratic base of working families will get their share of the state's immense surpluses and he will not be hamstrung by conservative Dems playing hanky-panky with Republicans. 

Chairman Nathan Small
With Rep. Small in charge it will the first time in living memory that a chairman of House Appropriations Committee will not be viewed as a fiscal conservative. Only Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Munoz stands in the way of more progressive spending habits and the odds are he will get washed away if he stands in the way. 

But Martinez and the Governor are not pushing aside a popular governing philosophy. They were re-elected in November on a platform of investing more in people programs.

As outgoing Speaker Brian Egolf pointed out as he headed for the exits: The Democratic House suffered no net losses, staying under control 45 to 25.

The 41 year old Martinez seized that mandate with gusto Tuesday by removing the only real obstacle in his way.


Lundstrom, in the House since 2001, did not hold back in her reaction to being so unceremoniously bounced. She said: 

As a minority woman and rural Democrat, I am saddened and concerned that the new progressive regime has inappropriately replaced my steadfast and prudent leadership of the HAFC and LFC in a pathetic attempt at political retaliation. . The decision to replace me with a white man with less than a fourth of the experience in budget development is extremely damaging to New Mexico with the ever-increasing one-party system that retaliates against traditional, Hispanic, rural, Democrats. My fight is long from over, because I can't believe the message that this sends to our young women of color.

Lundstorm playing the race card is out of character and a sign of her deep personal hurt but she challenged Martinez and donated campaign money to the conservative Dem primary foes of Reps. Susan Herrera of Embudo, Kristina Ortez of Taos and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe. All of them opposed Lundstrom's push for hydrogen energy. 

Lundstrom missed the moment. The state has turned and with it conservative Dems are almost as much of an endangered species as Republicans. That her chief political adviser, Mark Fleisher, unexpectedly passed away last September also left her vulnerable. He might have seen it coming and had her avoid the bitter end that has befallen her. 


In her opening day address MLG came equipped with a laundry list of programs to chip away at a projected $3.6 billion surplus in the state budget and billions more stowed away in rainy day and other funds. 

Many of the programs were previously announced but it was the political impact of what she was proposing that struck this observer as she detailed them to the state watching via the live-streams. 

Additional free child care to make it universal; universal free school lunches, establish a Health Care Authority and expand Medicaid to bring the state closer to universal health care; $200 million to establish a Rural Healthcare Delivery Fund to improve hospitals and clinics; codify abortion rights 

Those spending programs are not one and done. They will become permanent entitlements in each year's state budget and be particularly popular with a new generation of young women and men raising families. That should further solidify the state's Democratic base and could be an enduring political legacy of the incumbent Governor--to the chagrin of the Republicans who are hoping for a comeback someday. 


GOP senate leader Greg Baca accused the Governor of "glossing over" the state's well-known and deep-seated problems. 

Baca did not mention these omissions but from our perspective the speech was notably absent of any mention of the drug/addiction crisis that is at the root of so many of the state's social plagues. Nor was there any mention of making New Mexico safer for its children who are too often subjected to trauma which forges future behavioral health issues that stunt progress. 

And while advocating for a four percent pay raise for teachers and urging that all of their health insurance premiums now be paid by the state, she did not indicate any leverage would be applied in order to move the needle on the state's underperforming public schools. 

This Governor is not one to lay down markers if she doesn't see a high probability of success, but the see no evil theme will be tested as her second term matures. 


That second term isn't even a month old but already the Roundhouse was buzzing on opening day about who will succeed MLG in 2026. It was lost on noone in the packed house of politicos that Sec. of Interior Deb Haaland was on hand for the ceremonies and was recognized by MLG as was US Reps Stansbury and Leger Fernandez. 

But it is Haaland who is persistently mentioned when talk of the future governor arises. Several lobbyists were already anointing her Tuesday as MLG's successor, citing the irresistible allure of Dems to nominate and elect New Mexico's first Native American Governor. US Sen. Martin Heinrich wasn't there to compete with that speculation but it is sure to crowd his own daydreams about succeeding MLG. 

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Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Arrest of Former GOP House Candidate In Shootings Has Political Implications And Raises Questions, Plus: 60 Day Legislative Session Kicks Off Today; So What's Missing?  

Pena arrested (Rosales, Journal)
The 112 legislators gathered at the capitol today are breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of an arrest on the eve of the session related to the recent shootings that targeted the homes of ABQ based politicos. 

But the arrest of 2022 unsuccessful GOP House District 14 candidate Solomon Pena is a major political setback for state and national Republicans. 

An avowed Trumper, Pena puts the patina of radicalization back on the state's minority party just as they try to regroup after another round of devastating election losses. As one of our Senior Alligators put it:

This will cast a pall on any hopes of the GOP to look legitimate this session. This is also going to look bad for the party nationally. 

Prominent Republicans who donated to Pena are the first to suffer a bad look. The Jalepeno Corp., headed by former GOP chairman and oilman Harvey Yates, donated $5,000 to Pena and '22 GOP Guv candidate Greg Zanetti came with $250.00.

The NM GOP came with this Monday night:

These recent accusations against Solomon Pena are serious, and he should be held accountable if the charges are validated in court. RPNM condemns all forms of violence. We are thankful that nobody was injured by his actions. 

The progressive Group ProgressNowNM tried to paint the GOP with a broad brush in the Pena arrest:

Whether it's #January6th, the kidnapping of the Michigan Governor, or right here at home, (violence) is their go to when their feelings are hurt.

ABQ Mayor Tim Keller joined in:

This radicalism is a threat to our city, our state, and our nation. We will continue to push back against hate in all forms and stop political violence.

The story was featured on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC evening broadcast and attracted other national attention. 

Pena, 39, an ex-con who served nearly seven years in prison for "smash and grab" crimes, was defeated in a landslide by Dem Rep. Miguel Garcia in his bid for the Downtown/Valley district. But he refused to concede and claimed the election was stolen.

Garcia did not report any shootings at his home but neighboring Dem state rep and soon to be House Speaker Javier Martinez showed law enforcement bullet holes in his house. 

While APD Chief Medina labeled Pena, the "mastermind" in a conspiracy in which he hired and paid four other men to do the actual shootings, there is still the question of whether Pena was directed in the conspiracy by someone higher up. Are there further connections to explore locally and nationally? 

Given the nature of the violence and the menacing atmospherics that continue to surround the MAGA movement that seems to be a question for new Bernallio County District attorney Sam Bregman to look into.

APD retired sergeant Dan Klein says the political nature of the crime may be the gateway for a federal investigation of the shootings as domestic terrorism.


As the 60 day legislative session opens today there is something missing--a bill that is the session's centerpiece and draws in the public. 

That's because strong Democratic majorities have taken hold since the ouster of conservative Senate Dems in the 2020 primary election and social legislation that once reverberated across the state is now settled law. 

That includes legal recreational pot, a constitutional amendment to beef up early childhood education and repeal of an antiquated anti-abortion statute. 

Other bills that had the public pulling up a chair to watch the Roundhouse action have also become law, including right to die, large teacher pay raises, free college tuition, expanded free child care and a revamping of the personal income tax rates that made them more progressive.

So what could serve as a legislative centerpiece today? One nominee would be a complete revamp of the Children Youth and Families Department and how it deals with the ongoing abuse of children that has repeatedly brought both tragedy and shame to the state. 

Another could be innovative programs that would move the needle on public school performance. Former state Rep. Dick Minzner offers up Mississippi's successful reforms as an example. He argues that with funding no longer an issue, New Mexico must change the way it educates youth or stay stuck in a low-performing funk, albeit a well funded one.

Neither CYFD or major reforms of public ed have found a sponsor in the Governor or the legislative leadership. No wonder. These problems are not low lying fruit like legal pot or abortion. They are among our stickiest dilemmas. Making them the new legislative centerpieces would require strong and courageous leadership. 


If the Republicans had a majority in Santa Fe this school choice bill from Sen. Craig Brandt would surely qualify as the centerpiece of the session. As things stand, it's hard to see the Dems and the teachers unions going anywhere near it:

The Education Freedom Account Act provides for establishing Education Freedom Accounts, which can be used to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, textbooks, and instructional materials, nationally standardized assessments, and other educational charges approved by the department. It outlines the application process and procedures for parents and education service providers, as well as the rules and responsibilities of the parents and students.


GOP Senator Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte is already feeling frustrated over another big increase planned for the state budget. She puts up this pic and tweet:

While Democrats hand out money like it’s candy, I’ll hand out candy like it’s money. The 60-day legislative session begins tomorrow. $12 Billion proposed budget.

Handing out money the Dems will indeed do, but it won't be the $12 billion the senator states. The proposed budgets from the Governor and LFC are both about $9.4 billion. Feel better now, Crystal? 

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Legislative Session Not The Only Center Of Power This Week; Giant Medicaid Program Set To Choose Companies Tasked With Providing Health Care To Nearly Half of All New Mexicans 

The start of the 2023 legislative session tomorrow isn't the only big news in Santa Fe this week. 

One of the most impactful financial and healthcare decisions will be made when the NM Human Services Department announces the companies that will be awarded contracts to run the state's Medicaid program for nearly 1 million lower income recipients--or almost half the state's population. And it won't be without some controversy. First, from HSD:

Managed care organizations work in partnership with the state’s Medicaid program and clinicians to provide access to physical and behavioral health, and long-term care services. Contracts with HSD’s current MCOs, Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico, Presbyterian Health Plan, and Western Sky Community Care expire at the end of 2023. Beginning in 2024, the state’s Medicaid program, known as Centennial Care 2.0, will become Turquoise Care and will begin operation with the newly awarded MCOs. 

Western Sky Community Care is a subsidiary of Centene, the nation's largest Medicaid provider. It's taking heat over a $13.7 million fine it was hit with last year for overcharging NM Medicaid:

The nation’s largest private-care provider for Medicaid could be continuing its services in New Mexico, despite settling with the state for $13.7 million earlier this year over improper billing of prescription drugs. That is but a fraction of the $596 million in settlement payments Centene Corp. has made to 13 states because of questionable billing practices, so far.

The state Medicaid budget is now a towering $8.8 billion annually with two thirds of that covered by the Feds. 

Next door in Texas:

Centene has settled with Texas for $165 million to resolve claims of Medicaid fraud by the Texas attorney general. Centene made no admission of liability, and maintained that its business practices were lawful. Under the terms of the settlement, Centene will pay more than $165.6 million to resolve Attorney General Ken Paxton's investigation. . . The AG alleged that Centene overcharged Medicaid in the prescription drug program.  


HSD says it will go by the book and award the Medicaid contracts under a scoring system and by the state procurement code. Still, Centene is a major political player, donating $30,000 to MLG's re-election effort and:

Since 2015, the St. Louis-based insurance behemoth, its subsidiaries, its top executives, and their spouses have given more than $26.9 million to state politicians in 33 states, to their political parties, and to nonprofit fundraising groups, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data from the nonpartisan group OpenSecrets. . .It’s a purposeful political investment: Centene earns billions of dollars from governments and then uses its profits to back the campaigns of the officials who oversee those government contracts. The company has developed this sophisticated, multipronged strategy as it pursues even more state government-funded contracts and defends against sweeping accusations that it overbilled many of those very governments. 

Of course, Centene is not alone among health care companies making political contributions and it has not been charged with any legal violations.

The company is a behemoth with deep experience, reporting $738 million in quarterly profit in last year's third quarter. Centene trades on NASDAQ as CNE and has a market value of over $40 billion. 

Their total national enrollment in Medicaid, Centene’s biggest business, is 15.7 million, up from about 14.8 million a year ago. 

Western Sky Community Care recently donated $3 million to help get the ABQ Gateway Center for the homeless up and running, 

Centene has much going for it but that nearly $14 million in fines, plus more from out-of-state, is a black mark. 


The names of the firms competing for Turquoise Care are kept under wraps but award winners will have their work cut out for them, according to a December report from the Legislative Finance Committee: 

Between FY19 and FY23, growth in state spending to provide Medicaid far exceeded growth in enrollment (56 percent versus 16 percent, respectively); yet, the healthcare that Medicaid enrollees actually used remained flat or declined over the same time, with a few exceptions. This is concerning as the significant health challenges experienced by the state’s Medicaid population will likely not improve if Medicaid enrollees cannot access the health care they need. The state’s inadequate healthcare provider network continues to be a significant barrier for Medicaid enrollees to access timely care. A Fall 2022 LFC secret shopper survey demonstrated these network shortages, with Medicaid enrollees only able to get an appointment with a primary care or behavioral health care provider 13 percent of the time.. . 

HSD says the contractors approved this week will have a long list of new standards to fulfill to improve Medicaid performance. 

What happens at the legislative session will have impact, but it's hard to top selection of the firms who will be trusted with the critical task of providing medical care for nearly half the state's citizens.

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