After federal Judge William Johnson remarked in his fifth-floor Albuquerque courtroom that “this matter is before the court for sentencing,” the crowd of roughly 30 observers stirred. Family members of the defendant, Jaime Estrada, gripped hands. Reporters flipped the pages of their notebooks while others shifted in the creaky wooden benches.
Estrada stood in front of the judge, his two attorneys at his side, hoping for mercy.
He didn’t get it.
After pleading guilty to two federal felonies—for intercepting one of Gov. Susana Martinez’ campaign emails and lying to the FBI about his role intercepting “hundreds” of other messages sent to her campaign’s accounts—Estrada was asking the judge to sentence him to probation instead of the maximum year and day in prison.
The judge appointed to the US District Court bench by President George Bush noted Estrada’s work for the Bush Administration and as the field director of his reelection campaign, which had been praised by oilman Mark Murphy, one of 69 individuals who wrote letters on Estrada’s behalf. Johnson said he knew Murphy from Roswell.
Gov. Susana Martinez appeared as the government’s star witness, reading a letter and noting that she was there not as an elected official, but as a victim of Estrada’s conduct.
“Estrada’s crimes are even more reprehensible given that they were intended not only to inflict damage on me personally,” said the governor, “but also to disrupt our state government.”
Emails Estrada intercepted included messages sent to or by administration staffers that concerned state business, conducted over private email accounts in order to avoid disclosure through public records laws.
Yet the governor didn't mention that point.
“I write to you today as a victim and on behalf of numbers other victims in this case, many of whom are involved merely by virtue of their service in government, in New Mexico and across the county,” Martinez read.
Estrada’s attorney Zach Ives said that he didn’t think it was appropriate for Martinez to be speaking “for many victims” because even one of the people whose emails were intercepted, and listed by the government as a victim, didn’t consider herself a victim in this case. Ives said federal prosecutors waited until yesterday, the day before the hearing, to ask the person who was listed as a victim in the case to write a letter to the judge.
“Different people have different reactions to this case,” Ives noted, “and that includes those whose emails were intercepted.”
In imposing a sentence “sufficient but not greater than necessary,” as required by federal statute, Johnson announced he had to consider the nature of the offense and Estrada’s criminal history (he has none). The sentence, Johnson said, must protect the public from further crimes by the defendant (“It’s likely that he would never reoffend,” said Johnson).
Estrada had a falling out with Martinez in December 2009 as her campaign manager. He left the campaign to make a failed bid for a seat on New Mexico’s Public Regulations Commission. Following Martinez’ rejection of his offer to work in her administration, in July of 2011, he used a pre-paid gift card and renewed Martinez’ campaign domain under a fake name, according to the plea agreement.
Estrada had been the only person with access to the campaign's domain password—campaign officials didn’t change it after his falling out with Martinez. He arranged for emails sent to the campaign’s email accounts—set up for Martinez and her staffers who had moved into her administration—to be diverted and sent to an account controlled by Estrada.
For the next year, Estrada collected “hundreds” of emails sent to those accounts by people like government employees, lobbyists, political operatives and regular citizens. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his role in intercepting those emails in a September 2012 interview. He also pleaded guilty to intercepting one email from the Republican Governor's Association to Martinez.
Johnson said the sentence must also “reflect the seriousness of the crime.”
After citing Estrada’s distinguished history and career, Johnson looked to a quote used by President John F Kennedy, citing the Book of Luke.
“For those to whom much is given,” Johnson said, “much is required.”
Estrada told the judge that he accepted “full responsibility and the consequences for my actions.”
He argued for probation because his brother Stephen is dying from non-alcoholic, end-stage liver disease. Estrada said he's led “every single” health care decision for his brother.
“I am Stephen’s most reliable caregiver,” he said.
Stephen and Estrada's elderly father sat in the courtroom. His wife cried.
Calling Estrada’s crimes “well-planned” and "sophisticated," Johnson said there’s always family members impacted by crimes, and in this case it didn’t justify probation.
Estrada’s plea agreement called for a maximum sentence of a year and a day in prison, but Johnson said he’d shave three months off that and sentence Estrada to 9 months behind bars with three years of supervised release. Estrada also must pay a $10,00 fine and serve 100 hours community service.
As a convicted felon, the former public servant can no longer vote.
Upon release, Estrada’s computer will also be monitored by software that will track his keystrokes, Internet history and email communications.
The judge said that he’ll wait to enter the sentence so that Estrada can make arrangements for his brother’s care.
His family members wept.
Estrada had no comment outside the courtroom, where he hugged his wife.
Martinez sat alongside her husband, her attorney Paul Kennedy and Pat Rogers, a lawyer who resigned from his job at the Modrall Sperling firm and stepped down from the Board of Directors for the Foundation for Open Government after his email communications to Martinez officials became public due to Estrada. Those emails revealed Rogers communicating with Martinez staffers about a lucrative lease awarded to a casino company for which he was lobbying in a deal that’s also caught the attention of the FBI.
While Estrada expressed remorse at the hearing, Rogers later said justice was served.
“I deeply apologize to Governor Martinez and all of the other people whose private emails I intercepted,” Estrada said at the hearing.
Martinez ducked out of the courthouse and avoided the gaggle of reporters and TV crews, but Rogers paused for the cameras saying that Estrada “certainly expressed an apology to the governor” when asked if he accepted Estrada’s apology. He added that he's sorry for all the people whose privacy Estrada invaded, as well as for Estrada's family.