Public corruption in New Mexico isn’t like the hard-boiled gangster politics of Illinois. No, our political scandals are as hot and spicy as green chile, as muddy as the capital’s adobe architecture—and just as commonplace.
“I thought we scraped bottom before I ran for governor, but apparently not,” Republican former Gov. David Cargo, 1967-71, tells SFR. “It’s mostly in the water. If you drink too much water, it affects your judgment.”
Maybe it is hazardous waste seeping into the water tables. Or maybe it’s because New Mexico can’t be the Wild West if politicians don’t do things like chase patrons out of a bar with a claw hammer (Sen. Eddie Barboa, D-Bernalillo, allegedly, circa 1975).
But it’s not just the irascible temperaments of New Mexico’s public officials that bring shame upon the state; greed has also tainted the political sphere.
In Cargo’s day, pay-to-play was limited to the exchange of liquor licenses for political contributions. Cargo points to Gov. Bill Richardson, who has been caught up in a pay-to-play scandal that has yet to result in any charges (Richardson denies any wrongdoing).
“Bill Richardson’s got it down to an art,” Cargo says. “He says the fact that he takes money doesn’t affect his decisions…You talk about the mother’s milk of politics.”
SFR’s era of watchdogging began shortly after Cargo’s retirement. Long-time public servant and political operative Brian Sanderoff says political corruption—such as that involving past state treasurers—has definitely intensified in frequency and ambition over the last 35 years.
“We have more scandals in recent history, dealing with higher level thugs than we have in some decades,” Sanderoff tells SFR. “It seems like New Mexico politicians have not learned from the lessons of the past.”
Here are some highlights from SFR’s 3½ decades from the news archives.
In 1977, Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick and three city councilors were caught up in a scandal after they accepted vacations to Mexico from a contractor who sold the city a tractor.
No action was taken, proving New Mexico’s history of forgiveness. At around the same time, state Treasurer Jesse Kornegay resigned from office after a federal court convicted him of perjury—he returned to public service as an appointee after serving his time.
During this period, New Mexico experienced one of its first high-profile drunk-driving scandals when state Sen. Eddie Lopez, D-Santa Fe, racked up three counts of DWI. Nevertheless, the state still placed a bust of him in the State Land Office.
“It was big because Eddie Lopez was a powerful and controversial state senator who spent a lot of time at the Bull Ring [in its former location],” Sanderoff says. “The irony is that’s the same building that Carlos Fierro was in when he had too much to drink and got involved with that hit-and-run.”
Sanderoff was on the right side of a scandal in the early ’80s, when Governor’s Office of Community Affairs Director Herman Grace confessed to an elaborate skimming scheme with the state’s home-heating program. Sanderoff was tapped to temporarily manage the office and says his car was pipe-bombed after he started killing questionable contracts.
After Kornegay, State Treasurer Earl Hartley followed with the second major scandal for an office that seems to attract malfeasance. In 1985, Hartley pleaded guilty to misusing more than $4,000 of the Western State Treasurers Association’s money.
“The crimes seemed a lot bigger then and seem a lot smaller now seeing what other shenanigans went on in the Treasurer’s Office,” Sanderoff says.
Treasurer James Lewis was appointed to replace Hartley, as he would be again several years later after more scandals emerged in the Treasurer’s Office.
In 1992, the state Legislature censured one of its members for the first time: Rep. Ron Olguin, D-Bernalillo, was accused of accepting a $15,000 bribe.
“In the scheme of things, he got nailed for something not all that major, but it was enough,” Sanderoff says.
A hungry press couldn’t ask for anything more out of Municipal Court Judge Fran Gallegos, whose nine-year term, 1996-2005, ended in resignation.
She was accused of everything from assigning offenders to drivers’ safety courses that financially benefitted her chief administrator to misinforming defendants of their legal rights to altering court records.
The state Supreme Court censured Gallegos for living outside her district for two years and censured her for what the Judicial Standards Commission determined was a “myriad of ethical violations.” She resigned before her suspension was out.
But this era also saw the beginning of several complicated schemes involving Treasurers Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya, former state Sen. Manny Aragon and Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna.
Vigil and Montoya are serving time for corruption charges, while Aragon has only recently turned himself in to federal custody for his part in a mail-fraud scheme involving the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Serna, meanwhile, resigned as investigators began snooping into pay-to-play allegations, the last in a career riddled with accusations of shady dealings—though he emerged from those scandals legally unscathed.
Yet, as those cases garnered headlines, politicians continued to push ethical boundaries. Richardson accepted tens of thousands of dollars from companies that would later receive contracts from the state, resulting in a recent federal grand jury probe. The probe is reportedly now closed, but no charges have since been leveled. Nevertheless, the allegations drained the governor’s political capital.
On the other side of the aisle, two of New Mexico’s Republican US congressmen, Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, took heat after it was alleged they improperly influenced the Department of Justice to fire US Attorney David Iglesias for political reasons.
One current outstanding case brings New Mexico back to its ridiculous roots: During his campaign, Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. claimed to pay a country band $2,500 for a performance. That was proven a lie by the press: Wyld Country never played.
Northern New Mexico voters chose him for office nevertheless.
Already, it’s sure we’ll have more political scandal to cover in our 40th anniversary issue: Block Jr. and his father, also a life-long politician, face trial on criminal embezzlement and election law violations later this year.