When a vehicle carrying Susana Martinez pulled into the Staybridge Suites motel off Highway 70 on Oct. 24, 2010, with darkness enveloping the parking lot, a light pole showered its beam on an SUV.
If not for that light, Anissa Ford says they might not have noticed the yellow bumper sticker on the vehicle: “Say No to Susana la Tejana,” it read, a phrase Democrats had been using as a jab at Martinez’ El Paso, Texas, upbringing.
Martinez, then the Republican nominee for the governor seat, was dropping Ford and other staffers off at the Las Cruces hotel that night. Ford recalls asking Martinez to whom the vehicle might belong.
"Take a picture and send it to Kip," Martinez replied, according to Ford.
Increasingly, information wins campaigns. That's why both sides in big races expend considerable resources on political espionage, deploying opposition researchers to dig up dirt about a candidate's past or trackers to follow an opponent around the campaign trail, hoping to catch a gaffe on a video camera. All of this is lawful activity that's not too different than what reporters do every day.
But new evidence suggests the Martinez 2010 campaign took political espionage to another level by using the taxpayer-financed resources of the Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office to give it an edge, and in the process it subjected unsuspecting people to a research process normally reserved for suspects under investigation by law enforcement, specifically targeting undocumented immigrants and at least one person engaging in political speech protected by the First Amendment—the anti-Martinez bumper sticker.
“Kip” refers to Aaron Kip Scarborough, who worked as an investigator in Martinez’ Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office and as “security” for her gubernatorial campaign.
Ford, who was working as the candidate’s personal assistant, sent a photo of the license plate to Scarborough in the email. “What’s up??” he replied. “Tejana Susana stickers all over back and parked at our hotel,” she wrote back. He knew exactly what to do with the information: “Cool I will see who it belongs too!! [sic]” he replied.
Tracing the owner of a vehicle using just its license plate number would be impossible for anyone who didn’t have access to confidential law enforcement or motor vehicle department information. Federal law prohibits motor vehicle departments from giving out identifying information on drivers to anyone not authorized to see that information.
Ford is going public with the full account of the incident just after the Administrative Office of the District Attorneys, which oversees state prosecutors, unearthed records from Martinez’ tenure in the Las Cruces-area DA office that suggests her 2010 gubernatorial campaign abused public resources to conduct political research for its campaign and intentionally tried to hide the evidence.
Emails released by AODA also show an outsized investigative role for Scarborough. He appears to be tracking vehicles in Santa Fe during his time as an investigator with the Doña Ana County office, sending himself photographs of the City Different streetscape. In a handful of other emails during the campaign, a man who calls himself James Roehl sends Scarborough license plate numbers in a series of incoherent messages. It’s unclear why he sends the license plate numbers, but after the November election, Roehl, in a reference to Martinez’ opponent Diane Denish, wrote to Scarborough that, “I delivered to you a box of files for review relating to the Denish related matters that are not part of the new district attorney files.” Roehl threatened to call the police when a reporter knocked at the door of his Albuquerque apartment recently.
“These were for the benefit of the governor elect’s files,” Roehl adds to Scarborough in the Dec. 28, 2010 email. “I request that you make sure to remove the files for their [sic] is a danger of them being destroyed by others if they remain in the office of the D.A. after governor elect Martinez resigns.”
Martinez’ former campaign manager, Jamie Estrada, is now facing a prison sentence for intercepting emails from the governor’s campaign accounts. Martinez aggressively lobbied the FBI to investigate Estrada, leading to his prosecution, and Martinez even spoke as a victim at Estrada’s sentencing hearing on Oct. 8, where she told the judge that he deserved the maximum sentence because of Estrada’s actions “in violating the privacy of many other private citizens who did not hold themselves out as public figures.” Martinez told the courtroom that “experience has taught me that privacy truly is the touchstone of our criminal justice system.” She even disparaged Ford in court as Estrada’s confidant—despite the fact that Ford had agreed to testify against Estrada before he entered a guilty plea in the case.
Martinez’ top political adviser Jay McCleskey called Ford’s account of the night “recycled garbage that has already been discredited” in an email sent to SFR Saturday. That’s a reference to an April story by Mother Jones that briefly mentions the incident. Yet the incident has never been “discredited” or even fully addressed by McCleskey or Martinez. Ford says in a statement that she’s been reluctant to “come forward and talk about what I know” because she’s feared further retaliation from a gubernatorial administration that engages in “relentless and paranoid pursuit” of anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
Other emails obtained by SFR, and recently released by the advocacy group ProgressNow New Mexico, indicate that the Martinez campaign’s apparent abuse of government resources started months before the license plate incident.
At the end of August 2010, one of Martinez’ top prosecutors in the Third, Amy Orlando, emailed Scarborough the name of an immigrant, Natividad Mendoza, along with his date of birth, social security number and driver’s license number. The subject line to Orlando’s email reads “People to run.” She indicated to her sister in other messages that she had was conducting work on commercials for Martinez’ gubernatorial campaign that Sunday.
Two days later, the campaign released a TV ad saying that “Martinez gave criminal illegals prison time,” while her opponent “gave them drivers licenses” under Bill Richardson’s administration. The commercial showed booking sheets, presumably of undocumented immigrants who had been arrested.
Orlando wrote to Scarborough that another employee had been “running” the names through “CMS,” short for case management system, a database that allows district attorneys offices across the state to access information on prosecutions, witnesses and criminal defendants. Years before, Martinez had been instrumental in developing the database.
“I looked at the commercial they describe, and the records in that commercial are booking reports, which are all public record,” Orlando says in a written statement to SFR when asked about the correspondence. She also wouldn’t directly in a written statement deny the claim that she used the law enforcement databases to conduct research for the campaign commercial.
Two weeks after the ad ran, a staffer in the Third Judicial District office asked Orlando if she could “shred” a “pile of booking sheets that we had in my office.”
“For what??” Orlando replied.
“They are a bunch we printed the night we stayed looking for drivers license stuff,” office manager Robin Bruck replied, “I think these are all the ones that did not have a drivers license.”
“Yes!!” Orlando responds. “Thanks!!”
After Martinez secured the governorship, she appointed Orlando as her successor as the Third Judicial District attorney in 2011. Orlando, however, went on to lose the 2012 election for the seat to Democrat Mark D’Antonio in what emails show to be a deeply bitter race. In September, his office released an internal investigation alleging that records, including emails, disappeared during the transition from Orlando’s administration.
Even though the Administrative Office of District Attorneys provided some emails from the office in response to public records requests, Henry Valdez, AODA’s director, tells SFR that his staffers have been unable to locate emails messages to and from Martinez herself. He says his office recently turned over computer equipment to Attorney General Gary King, who launched a criminal investigation into tampering with public records, a fourth-degree felony carrying a potential 18-month prison sentence.
But in launching the investigation, King is also facing allegations that he’s using his own law enforcement powers to benefit his Democratic gubernatorial candidacy as he tries to unseat the Republican incumbent, Martinez.
Martinez is a close friend to Orlando, and in May, the governor named Orlando the top attorney at the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees State Police and other law enforcement functions.
“My responses have been to protect myself and to protect people that are working with Susana,” in light of an ongoing criminal investigation into the matter, Orlando told SFR in a phone conversation in which she denied the allegation that she and other officials used government equipment for political research and called the claims “crazy.”