On Aug. 11, a dozen members of the press crammed into a Public Regulation Commission meeting to follow a juicy lead. Jerome Block Jr.—the embattled commissioner facing allegations of charging $8,000 worth of gas to his government-issued credit card in six months, stealing a car and misusing public campaign funds—had been in the news for weeks.
Block’s fellow commissioners were set to remove him as PRC vice chairman, leading to speculations of either his impeachment or resignation. Block had also been hammered in the headlines for missing one-third of his PRC meetings. Predictably, he was a no-show.
Commissioner Ben Hall, visibly upset about the nature of the large media turnout, paused right before the vote to issue a lecture. He started by listing the number of meetings the PRC had held that year—about 60, he said.
“Never once has the press been here to report about maybe some good news. You never do that,” he told reporters.
Hall underlined how Block had yet to be charged with most of the allegations leveled against him. “In this country, you’re supposed to be presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty, but the press wants to prove you’re guilty first,” he said. “You’ve got to prove yourself innocent, and I don’t appreciate that.”
Hall’s outrage elicited a gasp or two from the press gallery. It also hints at a much deeper, more intractable issue: At what point does media coverage of a scandal cross the line from objective reporting to indictment? Can publishing allegations of wrongdoing lend credence to those very allegations? And, perhaps most importantly, how does a story such as Block’s—even as it remains unproven—affect the real people involved?
“When stuff is repeated over and over again, people think it’s true,” Kelly McBride, a specialist in media ethics at The Poynter Institute, tells SFR. “Journalists have a serious responsibility to help the public figure out if something is true or not, rather than just repeating allegations.”
McBride says many political allegations originate when an opponent plants a story. In the old days, those people would have to go through journalists, who played the role of gatekeepers, to have the allegations printed.
Today, any accusation can spew up through message boards, emails and social media, McBride says. As a result, reporters feel obligated to be part of a discussion already in progress. But doing so can be dangerous.
“It’s hard to figure out who’s behind perpetrations of allegations,” McBride says. “There are people in the world of politics where part of their job is to get negative stories about their bosses’ opponents out. Part of the genius of this is that you can’t trace it.”
Those who can trace it are the ones connected at “fairly elite levels,” but they’re few and far between, McBride says. Most journalists don’t have the time to sort through the sources of various allegations; as a consequence, public officials are sometimes unfairly associated with scandals.
In New Mexico, where corruption scandals seem to surface almost daily, tracing every allegation’s origin can be daunting, if not impossible. And Block is only the latest in a long line of officials who have endured very public trials—whether or not they’ve done anything wrong.
At a PRC meeting in mid-September, Block listened attentively to a woman arguing against the board of directors serving Taos’ Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. The woman told him that members of the co-op wanted to replace board President Danny Ortega.
“People want to get rid of me every day,” Block retorted, eliciting laughter.
Later on in the hallway outside, Block shuffles through papers showing the gas receipts that allegedly came from his state-issued card. Seventeen of them are marked on days when Block says he was taking a month off for personal leave. Some transactions occurred miles apart within minutes of each other, he says.
“I’m not Superman,” Block tells SFR. “I can’t be in Española filling up a car and filling up another one in Santa Fe two minutes later. It’s discouraging knowing that this evidence is out there and that nobody bothers to look at it.”
The purchases happened during the first six months of the year.
The scrutiny has been hard on Block and his family, he says. He ponders whether it all might convince him to step down from his PRC role.
“If this storm is weathered, it’ll be something else next week,” he says. “I’m looking forward to being whole again, and if it takes a resignation from me to get some peace of mind, then that might be something I need to look into in the next few weeks.”
Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. says he was meeting with constituents during many of his missed meetings.
At the same time, Block says that, if his constituents don’t think he’s doing a good job, “they need to get to the polls and find somebody to replace me.” The next PRC election takes place in November 2012.
This September, the New Mexico House of Representatives set aside $1 million to potentially impeach Block, something he says is unfortunate. “I don’t feel it’s up to the taxpayers to have to pay for allegations to be answered,” Block says.
Before House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, appointed the House subcommittee to look into impeaching Block, some speculated as to whether he would do so at all. In late August, influential state political blogger Joe Monahan suggested Luján would have to be “pushed off the bench” to begin impeachment proceedings. At first, Luján was noncommittal, but he soon named the committee because of the “seriousness of the allegations.”
The allegations are unquestionably serious; New Mexico Attorney General Gary King’s office recently reopened a criminal case against Block for misusing public campaign funds [SFReporter.com, Aug. 2: “Appeals Court: AG Can Prosecute Jerome Block”]. But even comparatively minor accusations can have sweeping effects.
Luján himself is no stranger to bad press. In 2010, he faced one of the toughest primary re-elections in his 36-year political career. That May, his name was tied to a scandal involving Advantage Asphalt and Seal Coating, a local paving company.
At a ribbon cutting for a low-water crossing bridge on a county highway, Luján says he suggested to then-Santa Fe County Public Works Director James Lujan (no relation) that he look into putting millings—asphalt that prepares roads for repaving—in the parking lot of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nambé.
When a Nambé resident saw county workers repaving the lot, he emailed the county over a concern of separation of church and state. A following email from James Lujan said the project was being done on request of the House speaker, who lives in Nambé.
When the press reported it, Ben Luján says his name unfairly came up in the headlines 10 times or more. He maintains his conversation with James Lujan was just a passing suggestion, not an order he has the authority to make. Still, he says that negative coverage played a role in the unexpectedly close primary election that June.
Ben Luján, who stayed relatively quiet during the incident, says trying to tell his side of the story often just makes the allegations come up again.
“When articles of that nature come out, it’s hard for you to defend yourself,” Luján says. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you respond?’ Well, it’s hard to respond because of the fact that everything that’s said is repeated.”
One month after the Advantage Asphalt scandal broke, Luján won re-election by only 72 votes. “I think [the scandal] really hurt my numbers in getting re-elected,” he says.
Others, though, faced much more serious consequences. James Lujan was fired from his post as county Public Works director (although Española quickly hired him as its city manager afterward). The county also investigated possible fraud by Advantage Asphalt.
One of the names that surfaced in the investigation was that of Jon Paul Romero, who lost a primary election that same June for Santa Fe county commissioner. Romero, who owns Southwest Design, a construction management company, has done business with Advantage Asphalt: The company had paid Southwest Design more than $42,000 for a county project and contributed $250 to Romero’s campaign. “I’m an engineer, so I’ve done work with everybody,” Romero tells SFR.
But the revelations of Romero’s past six DWI-related arrests were what led to unwanted headlines during his campaign. The DWI arrests occurred between 1991 and 2003, and only one of them remains on his record. Romero initially told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he had been arrested twice, with one conviction. He later told a reporter he mistook the arrest question for convictions.
The New Mexican ran a piece about Romero’s DWIs on May 5, the same day he was hosting a fundraiser.
“I was having a meet and greet and was like, ‘Wow, I have to deal with this,’” Romero says. “It’s unfortunate that that was a black eye on the campaign.”
Romero ended up losing the primary to current Commissioner Danny Mayfield (who is also Ben Luján’s nephew) by 67 votes. He says the DWI revelations may have affected voters in the southern part of his district, closer to city limits.
Today, Romero says he wouldn’t have run for public office if he didn’t want the revelations to come out. He currently serves on the Pojoaque Valley School District Board of Education and intends to run for a higher office again (he says he doesn’t yet know which office or when) with a hope that the six DWI arrests will be behind him next time.
The Advantage Asphalt scandal didn’t stop with Romero, however.
In Santa Fe, outgoing City Councilor Miguel Chavez filed an ethics complaint against a fellow councilor, Matt Ortiz, for failing to disclose that he worked as an attorney for Advantage Asphalt, which also contracts with the city. Chavez has also come out against Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger for allegedly using city money to benefit her tourism business; in March, former City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer filed a complaint against Wurzburger [SFReporter.com, March 16: “Ethics Complaint Filed Against City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger”].
Both Ortiz and Wurzburger declined to interview for this story, but Chavez says their actions point to a deeper flaw in New Mexico politics.
“Those shenanigans are no different than the corruption you see at the higher level,” Chavez tells SFR.
The series of pay-to-play allegations that plagued former Gov. Bill Richardson ranks among the state’s most notorious higher-level scandals. In 2009, when a federal investigation of Richardson prevented him from serving as President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary, Albuquerque’s top FBI agent called political corruption a state epidemic.
“It’s our No. 1 criminal problem,” Thomas McClenaghan told KRQE at the time. “It is at all levels of government.”
Richardson, whose alleged ethics troubles played a role in his low approval ratings at the end of his term, was often the butt of national jokes and bad press, including a listing by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as one the nation’s 11 worst governors.
Since then, he’s been cleared of a federal probe investigating the allegations.
“They keep trying to tie him into wrongdoing, and evidently, there hasn’t been sufficient evidence to really indict him or prove he did anything wrong,” Luján, an ally of Richardson during his governorship, tells SFR.
Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, says the lack of proof in Richardson’s case allowed for “a lot of partisan back and forth.”
“Nothing stuck there,” Atkeson tells SFR. “There were a lot of rumors about scandal, a lot of noise about scandal, but where is the conviction?”
Citing a busy travel schedule—most recently to Cuba in an attempt to negotiate the release of a US aid worker—Richardson declined to interview for this story. Many other state and local public officials also declined to speak with SFR, some citing reluctance to rekindle public interest in certain allegations. Those who did agree to interview may face renewed public scrutiny, but their insights offer a window into the experience of being dragged through the mud.
Between 2000 and 2009, 45 public officials in New Mexico were convicted, according to the US Department of Justice. The number is comparable to similarly sized states; 39 were convicted in Utah.
But perception of New Mexico’s corruption persists, including among reporters. In a 2003 study of state government reporters’ perceptions of the lawmakers they cover, New Mexico politicians ranked third-most crooked. Even Block says New Mexico politics have more backstabbing and witch hunting than most places. (He adds that he hates it.)
Among the accused, though, many maintain their innocence—including two former New Mexico secretaries of state, Mary Herrera and Rebecca Vigil-Giron. Both insist they’ve done nothing wrong, and both blame the corruption allegations and resulting unfavorable press on political maneuvering.
Neither case has so far been proven, but the effects have taken their toll.
Close to one year ago, Herrera lost an election in the wake of bad press, after two of her employees went to the FBI, accusing her of creating a hostile work environment.
Today, sitting in a conference room at the start of a lengthy interview, she reads a prepared statement from her Blackberry:
“It’s really sad that these disgruntled workers could use the Whistleblower [Protection Act] to disseminate false information and truly ruin someone’s reputation or life,” Herrera tells SFR.
She puts down the Blackberry. “I really felt that’s what it was all about,” she says.
Herrera’s downfall began when then-state Elections Bureau Director AJ Salazar resigned and accused her of soliciting donations from contractors and ordering employees to gather signatures for her re-election. Herrera, who denies the allegations, says the scandal started because she wasn’t giving Salazar the time off he requested.
Two other employees, Manny Vildasol and James Flores, later made similar allegations to the FBI.
Both were fired, but not before Vildasol made the news by secretly videotaping an employee allegedly fixing porn-related viruses. Both allege they were fired as retribution for going to the FBI.
Herrera never gave reasons for the firings, claiming, at the time, that they were personnel matters. Now, she says both were using hidden cameras and that the state’s Risk Management Division recommended she take action.
“I had Risk Management begging me not to make any comments so the state wouldn’t get sued,” Herrera says. “That made it very difficult in defending myself.”
At the time, Herrera’s name was in the news nearly every day. She says the press was taking statements from the other side at face value. “It was just bash, bash, bash,” she says.
After losing all of the top newspaper endorsements in 2010 (including SFR’s), Herrera lost her 2010 re-election bid by 70,000 votes.
Since then, she says, no FBI officer has visited her. Her former employees’ lawsuit against the state is ongoing.
Herrera sticks by her work, pointing to a fiscal year 2010 audit by Atkinson & Co. that found no significant financial discrepancies within her office.
But State Auditor Hector Balderas says private accounting firms can sometimes be too cozy with the organizations they audit.
“Audit reports are like health care checkups,” Balderas tells SFR. “You have to make sure there are good policy and procedures and good oversight of the audit functions as well.”
While that may be true, Atkinson & Co. did identify financial mismanagement in another audit: that of Herrera’s predecessor, Rebecca Vigil-Giron.
Vigil-Giron sighs when asked how much longer the already lengthy prosecution against her will take. In a matter of just a few years, she went from being a popular politician to being indicted on felony charges.
Former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron says she’s a victim of “the rules of the game”—ie attacks from political opponents.
When she speaks, hand gestures and animated facial expressions follow. Her tone exudes confidence that she’ll eventually be cleared of all wrongdoing.
“This is a politically motivated attempt against me,” she tells SFR. “I have been dragged through the mud.”
In 2009, a grand jury indicted Vigil-Giron on 50 felony counts of fraud, including money laundering, tax evasion, soliciting or receiving kickbacks, and faking documents. Her trial has stalled for a variety of reasons since then, limiting much of what she can do, she says.
“It is torturous at best,” Vigil-Giron says. “When you’re indicted, you’re fingerprinted. You get a mug shot. You have to ask to leave the state when your son graduates college.”
She also says she’s the brunt of corruption jokes in the media. “Whenever there is anyone that is being victimized as a corrupt official, my name is right up there next to them,” she says.
The indictments stem from 2004-2006, when her office paid political consultant Armando Gutierrez $6.3 million in public campaign funds. A 2008 federal audit showed Gutierrez could only account for $2.6 million of it.
Ensuing investigations showed Vigil-Giron paid Gutierrez more than $323,000 over what was legally allowed. But Vigil-Giron maintains she can prove where the money went, which she says delays in the lawsuit have prevented her from doing.
After the indictment, Attorney General Gary King became the top prosecutor against her. But in March of this year, a judge pulled King from the case over appearances of a conflict of interest. Months later, the judge, Pat Murdoch, was tied in his own controversy with accusations of forcibly performing oral sex on a prostitute.
Murdoch’s lawyer declined to be interviewed for this story.
Vigil-Giron is now being prosecuted by former 1st Judicial District prosecutor Joseph E Campbell, but Murdoch’s predicament leaves the case without a judge. Vigil-Giron and her attorney argue they’ve been deprived of their right to a speedy trial; King, for his part, attributes the delay to her lawyers’ conflict of interest claims about him and his office’s responses.
To Vigil-Giron, the problem isn’t negative headlines; it’s political opportunism and infighting among Democrats. “Gary King wants to get me out of the way and prove he’s a big, tough guy on crime,” she says.
It’s a strategy that has worked in the past—most recently, during Susana Martinez’ gubernatorial campaign.
“She exploited an opening on corruption by linking [opponent and then-Lt. Gov.] Diane Denish to Richardson,” Tim Krebs, a UNM political science professor, says of Martinez. “It’s one of those things she won fairly handily.”
Others suggest that Balderas, who will face current US Rep. Martin Heinrich in the 2012 Democratic primary for outgoing US Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s seat, will campaign big on curbing corruption.
Still, even those charged with prosecuting corruption and enforcing government integrity—most notably Balderas and King—have endured whispers of controversy. Earlier this year, a sealed lawsuit reputedly contained accusations against King from Balderas, and vice versa. The lawsuit was settled the day King held a press conference responding to allegations [SFReporter.com, June 24: “State Auditor & AG Make Nice”].
And while King touts his record on fighting corruption—“I have brought more corruption cases than any other attorney general I’m aware of,” he tells SFR—he himself is not immune to accusations.
Malott continued filing campaign reports for King through 2010, adding a sticking point to the criticism. The New Mexican called it “clearly conflict of interest” and suggested King “consider recusing himself from office.”
King, whose nasal voice and small frame make him seem like more of a policy wonk than a vicious opportunist, has also come under fire for failing to mete out justice swiftly, particularly in the lawsuit against Vigil-Giron. King emphasizes that he was pulled off the case for the appearance of a conflict, not necessarily an actual one.
“[The judge] found no political bias, no personal bias, but then ruled that our office couldn’t move forward with the case anyway because of what he called a cloud,” King says. “A lot of people misunderstood that.”
Such claims of innocence reveal another facet of New Mexico politics: the legal distance between actual wrongdoing and the whiff or appearance of corruption.
To Atkeson, the root of the state’s corruption epidemic isn’t a lack of integrity among public officials. “The real problem in New Mexico is we don’t have good laws against corruption and don’t define it well,” she says. “You can pretty much do anything you want.”
Balderas agrees. “It’s a very, very serious problem,” he says. “The oversight and controls are just far too weak for a modern society.”
In general, politicians go as far as possible to raise money, Atkeson explains, so when the rules are loose, they’re likely to take advantage of loopholes.
Some criticize the state for lacking an independent commission to look into conflicts of interest. New Mexico also lacks a campaign finance law capable of tracking anonymous donors, who have gained additional leeway since the 2009 US Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, tells SFR. Allen adds that the solution to corruption includes public campaign funding and real salaries for state legislators, who are currently paid $179 for each day they serve in session.
But another factor is the extent to which New Mexico voters actually care about corruption.
While corruption does generally make the public trust government less, Krebs says, many voters probably rank it below issues such as economic performance, unemployment and crime. Some corruption, he says, is “expected.” That expectation has a dual consequence: It inures voters to corruption, but it also heightens the perception of any anomaly or deal making as probable wrongdoing.
The scale of corruption in New Mexico falls somewhere in between the “moralistic” political cultures of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the known corruption centers, such as Illinois and New York. Within that middle ground, New Mexico maintains a status quo wherein elite families—the Kings and the Lujáns of the land—can hold onto power for a long time.
“Corruption is not accepted here, but change isn’t embraced here either,” Krebs says.
As impeachment proceedings, court cases and vigorous media coverage continue against Block and a host of other public officials, a new crop of would-be public officials readies for the 2012 campaign season. And wherever there’s a close race—or even if there isn’t—candidates and observers can expect plenty of mudslinging. SFR