"From 'good place' to the enemies list": how a top political staffer fell from favor

During a June 2012 episode of the local public television program New Mexico in Focus, Jamie Estrada sat quietly among panelists as they discussed the controversy over emails leaked from the campaign accounts of Gov. Susana Martinez and her staffers. The emails—published by SFR and other media outlets—showed officials in Martinez' administration using private email accounts to conduct government business. The handful of panelists hotly debated whether the Martinez administration had intentionally used private email to circumvent the state's Inspection of Public Records Act.

Eventually, it was Estrada's turn. Introduced as a US Commerce Department official under George W Bush, he said that, as a federal employee, "one of the first things you learn is, don't ever do anything on personal email."

"[In] the federal world," he said calmly, "no one ever did this, you know, in my experience, except for the occasional State Department employee that was traveling overseas that said, 'You know, I can't get access to my government email.'"

In his many appearances on the public affairs show over the next year, Estrada offered a pragmatic, right-of-center counterpoint to more partisan panelists. Poised and deliberate, he seemed more likely to observe and analyze a political scandal than to wind up at the center of one.

Yet last week, all that changed. On Thursday, the US Attorney's office announced a 14-count federal indictment accusing Estrada of intercepting private emails sent to top Martinez staffers for a year, and then lying to federal agents about it. Each count carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison—a potential 70 years in total. NM in Focus responded quickly, announcing that Estrada would no longer appear on the show until his legal issues were resolved.  

Estrada maintains he's innocent (indeed, an indictment is merely an accusation).

But as the back story slowly unfolds, it offers a unique window into internal tensions within the Martinez campaign apparatus—and how even a top political player can fall out of the governor's good graces.

Central to the case is Estrada's apparent falling-out with the Martinez administration. In July 2009, the indictment states, Estrada joined the Republican gubernatorial campaign of Martinez, an up-and-coming district attorney from his hometown, Las Cruces. She had a reputation as a tough-on-crime Hispanic woman who would stamp out corruption, and she made Estrada her interim campaign manager. But, as the indictment against him notes, "Estrada's tenure with the campaign did not last long, as he left the campaign in or about December 2009."

The exact details of Estrada's departure are in dispute.

Martinez, in a statement last week, said that she "knew [Estrada] to be a man of suspect character."

"That is why I fired him from my campaign in 2009 and why I rejected him for a position within my administration," she said.

Estrada—who, shortly after leaving the campaign, began an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Public Regulation Commission—disputes that claim.

"I want to make it clear that I have not broken any laws or done anything improper," Estrada said in his own statement last week. "Nor was I dismissed from my job as interim campaign manager for Governor Martinez."

Estrada's lawyer, Zachary Ives, provided SFR with documents he says "are not consistent" with claims that Estrada was fired.

They include a text message sent to Estrada, apparently from the governor herself, on July 16, 2010—seven months after he allegedly left the campaign.

"I would like to give u a check for $5,000 now and I will try to do another $5,000 in a month or two to pay you for your help and support. Is that ok?" the message reads. According to the documents provided by Ives, Estrada then forwarded the message to Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey, writing, "Thanks, bro, for anything you did to make this happen :)."

"No worries," McCleskey replied. "You deserve it."

In another message, dated July 17, McCleskey writes to Estrada, "You are in a good place w/her."

Ives also provided a flier that lists Estrada among the host committee for a September 2010, $1,000-ticket fundraiser in Washington, DC, and text message records showing that Martinez specifically requested Estrada's presence at her pre-inauguration gala in November 2010.

But according to McCleskey, "Jamie Estrada was fired for numerous reasons, including improperly accessing Susana Martinez's personal email account. Helping him resolve disputes over what he believed was owed him from 2009, even though he had agreed to accept his position as a volunteer campaign manager without compensation, does not change that fact."

Ives denies that Estrada "improperly accessed" the governor's email during the campaign.

He adds: "If Mr. Estrada was fired for 'numerous reasons' such as inappropriately accessing the Governor's email, why did the Governor and McCleskey arrange for $10,000 in back pay, put him on a host committee for a big Washington, DC fundraiser, give him a 'friends and family badge' for the Martinez's victory party on election night, and then invite him to the inaugural gala?"

But McCleskey also provided SFR with other documentation, including two emails from Estrada that suggest he was vying for an administration post.

In the first email—sent to McCleskey on Nov. 7, just days after Martinez' election, with the subject line "Transition advice"—Estrada writes that he'd "like to apply" for what appears to be a position in the Martinez administration.

"It would be helpful to know my chances for econ dev," Estrada wrote—likely a reference to the state Economic Development Department. Eight days later, Estrada emailed McCleskey again, wondering "how I went from 'good place' to the enemies list in a span of 4 months." In December, the nomination went to former congressional candidate Jon Barela.

The following July, according to the indictment, Estrada began intercepting the governor's email.

Around that time, Martinez' campaign staffers allegedly learned that emails sent to Susana2010.com addresses "were bouncing back to the sender." Realizing that they needed to re-register the campaign's web domain, they attempted to do so—but, according to the indictment, failed "because no one on the staff could locate or recall the username and password associated with the Domain or the name of the original registrant."

The original registrant, according to a domain report obtained by SFR, was David Hiss, who earned more than $27/hour in Martinez' Las Cruces district attorney office when he registered the domain in 2009. (The indictment states that "D.H." registered the domain in 2009 and donated it to the Martinez campaign.) The indictment states that someone affiliated with Martinez' campaign asked Estrada for the necessary domain information, but he "refused" to provide it.

About 11 days later, according to the indictment, Estrada allegedly used an alias to create a profile at GoDaddy.com, the domain service through which Susana2010.com was registered. When the campaign's domain expired, Estrada bought it under the name "Sylvia Tacori," using a Denver street address that's currently listed as a Chipotle. Then, the indictment alleges, Estrada "directed all incoming email messages to a Google email account controlled by Estrada."

But it wasn't until last June—when Independent Source PAC (a liberal group run by private investigator and former Gov. Bill Richardson opposition researcher Michael Corwin) began leaking dozens of those emails to reporters—that the Martinez administration publicly asserted that the emails were stolen.

After receiving the full cache of emails from the attorney general, SFR published them online last year [news, Dec. 18, 2012: "The Year in Closed Government"]. Several show state officials using their private email accounts to conduct public business. The 12 emails included in the indictment, however, are personal: receipts for online purchases made by Martinez; a staffer's banking information; a concerned citizen's message to the governor about her troubles with an "incompetent public defender."

But for some legal experts, the case raises some crucial, unsettled questions about electronic communications.

Marcia Hoffman is a former senior staff attorney at the San Francisco, Calif.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for Internet freedom; she now works in private practice. She notes that cases brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—"the computer hacking law"—have raised a "hotly disputed" question of whether disgruntled former employees have a right to use valid credentials given to them by an employer to access their work computers—even after their employment ends. Federal courts, she says, have gone both ways on the issue.

Yet in its case against Estrada, the federal government chose not to bring charges under that law, instead charging him for violating a wiretapping law that predates electronic communications. Still, Hoffman says what makes the case against Estrada interesting—"and a little bit challenging"—is "the fact that the ownership of the domain is still unclear."

"Basically, he had the username and password as part of his work with the campaign," she says. "But then at some point, obviously the campaign didn't want him working with them anymore and, you know, that's when it starts to get very complicated."

Barbara Mandel, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, is a Las Cruces-based assistant federal public defender. In her 20 years of public defense work, Mandel hasn't "seen any cases that are really like this."

"It's an interesting, interesting issue," she says. "I don't think it's been litigated in this state before."

She adds that the US Attorney's case may hinge on "[Estrada's] intent and whether he actually looked at these emails that were not meant for him."

To Hoffman, the indictment itself also raises questions. She points out that generally, in wiretapping cases, "the feds can prosecute it, but the person who feels like their rights have been violated, they can just sue, right?" she says. "And it's an interesting question, why the feds think this is something that's worth a full-press prosecution, as opposed to the people actually affected taking action themselves."

She offers a possible rationale: deterring others from taking similar action.

"This involves a high-profile victim, if you will—a politician," she adds. "And that might be one reason they chose to pursue it."

Aside from formal statements through his attorney, Estrada has remained largely silent since his indictment. His arraignment, a formal reading of charges and plea entry, is set for June 13. But Ives offers a hint of things to come.

"We will provide a vigorous defense, including on the question of Governor Martinez's credibility," he writes in an email to SFR. "We intend to continue to expose the problems with her story and to reveal her true motives for attacking Mr. Estrada." 

Joey Peters contributed reporting.

June 5, 2013, update: According to newly unsealed search warrants, on Dec. 23, 2009, Estrada emailed McCleskey: "...I can't understand how she wouldn't think there are political consequences for treating me unfairly." Days later, on Dec. 27, Gov. Martinez emailed Estrada: "Please submit immediately all information you have that pertains to this campaign, to include, but not limited to...[a]ny and all usernames and passwords to any account or any service, to incude, Vonage, Verizon, Wells Fargo, or any account that belongs to this campaign...any and all data that is part of the campaign...please provide all of the above data on Mo[n]day, December 28, 2009, no later than 5:00pm. I will expect that you will not keep any electronic copies or hard copies of any of the campaign data."

Jamie Estrada Discusses Leaked Emails on New Mexico In Focus

Messages Provided By Jamie Estrada's Attorney
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Messages Provided by Jay McCleskey
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