Jerome Block Jr. packed the headlines all summer and fall before his work as a Public Regulation commissioner came to a highly scrutinized end.
The scandals were countless, starting with misuse of public campaign money in 2008 and culminating in post-plea bargain jail stints in October and November.
The scrutiny really came in June, when it was revealed that Block had spent more than $8,000 on his state-issued gas card in less than six months. At one point, Block admitted his addiction to oxycodone, a powerful prescription narcotic.
“It’s been tough,” Block told SFR in September, shortly before stepping down [SFReporter.com, Sept. 21: “Jerome Block Mulls Resigning”]. “I’ll be honest. The whole 2½ years I’ve been here, it’s been tough.”
In a late-September plea bargain with Attorney General Gary King, Block pleaded guilty to identity theft, credit card fraud and state election law violations. In exchange, he agreed to pay back the money, attend mandatory drug rehab and never run for public office again.
Though King touted it as a win for the taxpayers—the state Legislature had set aside $1 million for Block’s possible impeachment—some criticized the plea for its lack of a jail punishment.
“He’s part of a class of citizens that plays by a different set of rules than the rest of us,” NMPolitics.net political blogger Heath Haussamen wrote in September. “He’s an elected official, and he has that fact to use as a bargaining chip.”
Attorney General’s Office spokesman Phil Sisneros says Block’s punishment—namely paying back the money he stole—is akin to what it would have been for a nonpolitician.
“To single him out for jail time just because he was a Public Regulation commissioner would be unfair,” Sisneros tells SFR, “just as it would be to single somebody out just because they’re not a public official.”
Block’s travails have only worsened: On Dec. 13, he was jailed a third time for violating the conditions of his drug court program. The following day, Sisneros told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the AG’s office would seek to peg Block with the maximum penalty, 4½ years in prison.
Rick Lass, who challenged Block for the PRC seat in 2008, says it’s good that he’s finally out of office.
“If that was the way he had to go out, I guess it’s OK,” Lass tells SFR. “At least he admitted guilt.”
To Lass, the real problem is New Mexico’s broken electoral system. Block won a crowded Democratic primary with 20 percent of the vote in 2008. Some attributed the victory to voter confusion with Block’s father, a well-known former commissioner with the same name.
Recently, Block has argued that his misdeeds were just a small part of the PRC’s corruption. In late November, Block hinted to KOB-TV reporters that he bought drugs through PRC staffers.
Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan says the Block hysteria was indicates a failing PRC. He recommends tightening qualifications for candidates and decentralizing the body’s power.
“Some people believe [Block’s] leaving solved the problem,” Nathan tells SFR. “As long as the PRC is so powerful and allows people with limited qualifications to be elected, it will continue to attract corrupt politicians like Jerome Block Jr.”
In a recent column, former SFR Staff Writer Dave Maass, who first reported on Block’s misdeeds in 2008, echoed that sentiment [cover story, Sept. 14: “Blocked Memory”].
“Somewhere in New Mexico, right now, a new candidate is emerging who is as bad as Block or worse,” Maass wrote.
Will we realize it in time to stop him?