Jamie Estrada's plea hearing on Monday provided a much quieter resolution than the potential "political circus" US prosecutors worried would enter the federal courtroom in their case against Gov. Susana Martinez' former campaign manager.
Estrada pleaded guilty to two felony counts in Albuquerque's Pete Domenici Courthouse today. One count charged Estrada with unlawful interception of electronic communications for intercepting an email sent by the Republican Governor's Association to the campaign email account of Republican Gov. Martinez. The other charged him with making false statements during an interview with FBI agents.
Once heralded as a rising star in the Republican Party who served in George W. Bush's presidential administration, Estrada now faces the prospect of spending just over a year behind bars and being labeled a felon.
Estrada joined Martinez' campaign in August 2009 before departing in December that year. He and governor Martinez had an apparent falling out. Martinez claims she fired him while Estrada, who subsequently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission in 2010, denies that claim. Martinez never appointed Estrada a cabinet post he had been seeking in her new administration.
"Today's guilty plea vindicates what I have said from the beginning which is that these personal and private emails were indeed stolen," Martinez said in a statement. "This is a case about a fired former employee who wasn’t given a state job and then sought to get even by illegally intercepting personal emails from numerous individuals, including personal bank account statements and my personal undergarment orders, all of which were made public in a misguided effort to harm me and others in a revenge scheme."
The US government charged Estrada with intercepting personal emails, like underwear orders and bank account statements, not for intercepting emails concerning public business.
The defense and prosecution must hammer out details of Estrada's sentence, which must meet the approval of US District Court Judge William Johnson.
While the current sentencing framework in the plea deal allows for the government to impose no prison time, the US Attorney for New Mexico, Damon Martinez, tells SFR his office will be arguing that Estrada should serve at least some of that time behind bars. He wouldn't say how much.
Martinez, the newly confirmed leader of that office, says this is a "very unique" case that sends the message that "we as a community have an expectation of privacy" in email communications.
Estrada, walking out of federal Magistrate Judge Lorenzo Garcia's courtroom, had no comment for the crowd of reporters who witnessed the short hearing.
In the plea agreement, Estrada admitted to "knowingly and willfully" making "false, fraudulent and material statements and representations to the FBI" during a September 19, 2012 interview at his Valencia County home, "including falsely telling the agents that I had not paid for the renewal of the Domain using a pre-paid gift card." Agents had executed a search warrant on the home.
He also admitted to logging onto the Martinez campaign's domain account in July 2011 and paying for the renewal of the domain under a fake name. He admitted to then intercepting "hundreds" of email messages intended for Martinez and her campaign staffers.
"I gave the emails to Governor Martinez' political opponents knowing that certain emails would be disseminated to others," reads the plea agreement. "After some of the intercepted emails were published in the press, on or about June 29, 2012, the governor released a public statement to the effect that she had asked federal authorities to investigate the interception of the emails."
Estrada initially pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. A trial was set to begin in July. Estrada's defense team filed discovery requests for a wide range of material regarding potential corruption in the Martinez administration. Federal prosecutors argued that Estrada wanted to turn the trial into a "political circus." Estrada's team argued it wanted to "impeach" Martinez by showing the jury her "true motivation" for requesting that the FBI investigate Estrada: to distract the public from an FBI investigation into the administration's "potentially corrupt" conduct revealed in the emails.
In the middle of a reelection campaign, Martinez faced the prospect of being cross-examined by Estrada's team about a politically controversial contract awarded to a racino owned by two Louisiana developers who funneled tens of thousands in campaign contributions to Martinez through various entities.
"It would have been easier for me to not have reported this crime, nor made myself available to testify as a victim," Martinez says. "But thousands of New Mexicans are victims of cyber crimes each and every year and that’s one reason I was willing to endure the bogus and personal smears in order to see this case through."
Judge Johnson denied motions that would've compelled the government to turn over certain material relating to a contract the administration awarded to the Downs of Albuquerque Racetrack and Casino. He said he wanted the trial to be about nothing but the charges against Estrada.
"[Government] witnesses may have a desire to give false testimony to please the government in the hopes of receiving a more favorable treatment in the government's ongoing criminal investigation regarding the award of the lucrative contract for the Downs racino," Estrada's legal team argued in a June 5 brief.
U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez had no comment on whether the federal government is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation into the Downs contract.
"The pleadings speak for themselves," Martinez tells SFR.
In the briefings leading up to the case, US prosecutors sought to deflect against Estrada's argument about a criminal probe into the gubernatorial administration—but at no point did they explicitly deny the FBI was investigating the Downs lease.