The New Mexico Court of Appeals today said a grand jury is constitutionally allowed to investigate potential fraud involving a local educational nonprofit.
The ruling involves Ecoversity, an education nonprofit that formerly offered environmentally-focused courses and now supports an open source website. Two years ago, District Court Judge Michael Vigil denied a petition signed by nearly 3,000 Santa Fe County residents to allow a grand jury to hear fraud claims against Jeff Harbour, who servers on Ecoversity's board. Among the petitioners are former Ecoversity students, staff and faculty.
The Santa Fe County clerk originally struck 900 names from the petition because they were unregistered voters or duplicates. That still left 1,952 valid signatures, enough to meet the legal petition threshold of 2 percent of registered county voters.
Yet Vigil struck the order down because many petitioners didn't list addresses with their signatures. Claude Convisser, a former Ecoversity student and the lawyer representing the petitioners, quickly moved the case to the state appeals court.
Today's ruling reverses Vigil's order, effectively recognizing the petition.
"The ruling doesn't rule on the merits of the case," Harbour tells SFR.
Harbour says he disagrees with the ruling and adds he'll be legally pursuing it.
Convisser accuses Harbour of undue influence against Frances "Fiz" Harwood, the founder of Ecoversity. Six days before her 2003 death of lung cancer, Harwood signed a new will that put Harbour in charge of her estate. Over the next few months, Harbour eventually filled Harwood's role on the board of directors for Ecoversity and Prajna, an affiliated eco-friendly nonprofit.
Convisser says Harbour made Harwood sign the new will while she was in a frail state.
"She was on morphine," Convisser tells SFR. "She was completely unaware of what was going on in the meeting."
Since then, Harbour has pocketed $800,000 from Harwood's estate while "driving Ecoversity into the ground," Convisser alleges. Harbour worked as Harwood's tax preparer before her death.
Harbour, who wouldn't comment on the details of the allegations with SFR, has previously called the charges outrageous and an attack on his character.
Throughout it all, Convisser has run into troubles of his own. Last year, the state Supreme Court recommended suspending him from practice for a year after he was accused of pressing the Ecoversity case in unlawful ways. The Court then deferred his suspension, requiring Convisser to respond to complaints against him and pay $5,000 in court fees.
Photo courtesy Ecoversity.