US District Court Judge William Johnson denied Jamie Estrada's request that federal prosecutors turn over a wide range of discovery material that Estrada requested as a part of his defense against criminal charges that he illegally intercepted the emails of Gov. Susana Martinez and her staff and then lied to federal agents about it.
Estrada sought discovery material from federal prosecutors related to the Martinez administration's awarding of a lucrative lease to the Downs of Albuquerque Racetrack and Casino. Johnson ordered the case is about Estrada's guilt or innocence in the face of 16 criminal counts—"nothing more, nothing less."
The April 24 order is a blow to Estrada's defense, which had argued that it wanted to use material related to the Downs to "impeach Martinez" by showing the jury that "Martinez and her associates have a powerful motive to retaliate against Estrada for exposing the racino emails, that retaliation was one of their motives in pressuring the government to prosecute Estrada and that it will continue to motivate them to testify falsely to assist the government in convicting him."
The federal government only decided to charge Estrada for intercepting 12 emails that didn't relate to the racino contract or government business. Dozens of emails regarding government business, including those about the Downs contract, that had been leaked to media outlets were not included in the indictment.
Estrada, who departed Martinez' campaign in December 2009, is defending himself against 12 counts of violating a federal wiretapping statute for intercepting the governor's emails and four counts that he lied to federal agents about it.
'Potentially corrupt conduct'
Estrada's legal team has been arguing the emails Estrada obtained reveal "potentially corrupt conduct by those in Martinez' administration and inner circle." The emails eventually appeared in "a steady stream of damaging media coverage" in the summer of 2012 on the administration's role in awarding a lucrative contract to the Downs, whose owners were huge donors to Martinez.
Estrada sought evidence from federal prosecutors relating to the awarding of that contract, such as "all documents regarding possible illegal or improper conduct by Governor Martinez, [Republican National Committee official and former Downs lobbyist] Pat Rogers [Martinez political adviser], Jay McCleskey, or others in connection with the award[ing]" of the Downs lease. Estrada's lawyers argued Martinez pressured the federal prosecutors to charge Estrada to deflect public attention away from the lease.
"Martinez and her associates have a political motive to testify falsely in the hopes of convicting Estrada to defect attention from their own conduct regarding the racino and the criminal investigations into that conduct," argued Estrada's lawyers, "and because the FBI and the United States Attorney, the very same agencies that are prosecuting Estrada, also control the racino investigation, Martinez and her allies have a motive to testify falsely to curry favor with those agencies with the goal of avoiding a poor outcome in the racino investigation."
'Political grandstanding and mudslinging'
Federal prosecutors argued that it would not be proper for Estrada to transform the trial about the charges against him into "a sideshow of political grandstanding and mudslinging in an effort to inflame, distract or confuse the jury about his factual guilt or innocence." They argued that introducing the Downs evidence would "entail testimony about the complexities of the state procurement system, the contract review process," all the "convoluted twists and turns" of the rewarding of the contract, "seasoned with a heavy dash of political bashing."
Judge Johnson, a Bush appointee, sided with prosecutors, ruling they are not currently required to disclose material related to the Downs along with the grand jury testimony of an FBI agent who Estrada's lawyers suggested might have falsely testified under oath. Johnson wrote the court "as a preliminary matter, has decided that it will state for the record what this case is about and what it is not."
"Accordingly," he wrote, "this case is about whether the Defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crimes charged [in the indictment]."
He ruled Estrada has failed to demonstrate why the material he sought is exculpatory, but rather that Estrada simply asserted the evidence "might generally go to Governor Martinez and her staff's motives to prosecute this case." He added Martinez has "no authority to order that federal charges be brought against the Defendant." To Johnson, the notion that Martinez, a Republican governor, is controlling the actions of Democrat President Barack Obama's Justice Department is "absurd."
Estrada's lawyers had previously noted that evidence shows the FBI had "over 20 interactions" with Martinez' political adviser, McCleskey, over the course of its investigation.
FBI investigation into Downs
Politically, Johnson's order might be a relief to Martinez. The trial is set to begin in July, and Martinez faces the prospect that previously undisclosed material on the controversial Downs contract spilling out in a public forum in the middle of a reelection campaign—not to mention the possibility of Estrada's lawyers cross examining the governor in an open courtroom about the Downs contract.
Martinez and her staff maintain there was nothing illegal about the awarding of the lease and that it was the best deal for the state.
Estrada's defense team wrote in a previous briefing that federal prosecutors do not dispute "that the FBI continues to investigate" the awarding of the lease.
Federal prosectors previously argued that "even a criminal act exposed through a violation of the Wiretap Act would neither excuse nor justify the interception."
"Of course, the mere fact that investigators may look into any issue in any prosecution does not make that issue either more or less credible," federal prosecutors wrote. "More importantly, Defendant Estrada has presented nothing that would entitle him to receive any official response or confirmation one way or the other about whether FBI agents may have interviewed anyone, or what they may have said, with respect to any matter that is unrelated to Defendant Estrada's own case."