A candidate in a high-profile, Santa Fe legislative race dropped out Monday, saying she is “re-focusing” her efforts on battling climate change.
But the end of the campaign for Lyla June Johnston (Diné) also comes about a month after she was named as a suspect by the Santa Fe Police Department in a criminal investigation.
According to police records obtained by SFR, Johnston was accused of fraud and embezzlement in late January by her then-campaign manager, who told authorities Johnston appeared to have helped steal thousands of dollars worth of the manager’s property.
Johnston, a Democrat and outspoken critic of the oil and gas industry, was aiming to unseat state Speaker of the House Brian Egolf—also a Democrat—until her official announcement on Monday afternoon.
She tells SFR the police investigation has nothing to do with her decision to end her campaign.
“The incidents in these [police] reports are untrue and stemmed from misunderstandings and the normal complications that organizations face when separating with a high-level employee,” Johnston says. “So, I was really happy that we’ve been able to work together to clear everything up and this misunderstanding has nothing to do with my decision to change direction and focus instead on the broader climate movement.”
Johnston and the campaign manager’s lawyer say the property was returned after police got involved. And although Johnston chalks it up to a “misunderstanding,” saying she was merely holding the woman’s belongings for her, questions remain about whether Johnston and another campaign staffer may have broken state or federal laws.
Despite repeated requests, police spokesman Greg Gurule did not make anyone in the department available to answer questions about the status of the case, which he says was sent to SFPD’s Criminal Investigations Bureau. It is not clear whether Santa Fe police have referred it to prosecutors.
Johnston’s former campaign manager, through her attorney, asked not to be named in this story out of concern for her work on future and current campaigns.
Police reports and body camera video from Jan. 23 show the woman accusing Johnston and another campaign staffer of taking the manager’s personal belongings from the campaign office, including a key to what the manager said was her personal post office box, after the manager parted ways with the campaign.
The woman also told the responding officer that when she went to check the post office box, she was told the lock had been changed. The campaign manager told police that she later received an email from Johnston, who proposed a meeting to return the property.
The bad blood appears to have started over a social media post, which the campaign manager told the responding officer had been circulating in Diné circles. She told the officer that in the post, Johnston admitted to and apologized for sexual misconduct during her college years at Stanford University.
The woman told the officer the post came as a shock to her and caused her to quit the campaign.
The campaign manager can be seen in the officer’s body camera video detailing how Johnston allegedly expressed concern that the post was being shared online.
She shows the post to the responding officer, who can be heard on the video reading it. The officer reads a passage in which Johnston apparently describes waiting for another student to get drunk before “making a swift move on her.”
Johnston says a screenshot of the social media post her former campaign manager shared with police was a “gross mischaracterization” of something she wrote but has since deleted.
“Someone took a portion of a Facebook post I wrote years ago and used it to circulate untrue rumors, and in the context of a political campaign, of course these things will get distorted,” Johnston tells SFR.
The goal of the since-deleted post, Johnston says, was an attempt at a teaching moment about consent.
“What I was writing about was that when I was a teenager, I kissed someone when we were both inebriated and, as teenagers, we normalize this behavior at parties,” she continues. “But I eventually rejected that mindset. Because now I know this means neither of us were able to consent. So, I was trying to start a conversation about consent that extends beyond the narrow legal definition.”
The former campaign manager told the officer that she suspected Johnston and another campaign worker took her things from the campaign office in retaliation for her quitting.
Rachel Higgins, the former campaign manager’s lawyer, tells SFR that her client’s belongings, which included an unprotected computer, office furniture and a set of keys, were eventually returned to her after the police report was filed. But, Higgins says, her client’s belongings were taken without any context.
“At the time that the police report was made, my client did not have any reasonable explanation,” Higgins says. “Some of that property was damaged, notably a notebook that she kept notes in regarding her work for the campaign. There were just pages torn out.”
One of the missing keys belonged to her post office box, the campaign manager tells the officer in the body camera video, explaining that postal employees told her the locks had been changed.
The officer responds by wondering aloud whether that might amount to a federal offense.
SFPD’s refusal to answer questions about the case leaves a cloud over whether detectives have closed their investigation. The campaign manager, Johnston and the other campaign staffer all have been interviewed by police, documents show.
A spokesman for First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna did not respond to multiple calls or text messages asking whether the office had received a referral.
And a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office would not “confirm or deny” whether Johnston or the campaign staffer are, or were, under investigation for tampering with US mail.
Higgins says her client has moved on from the incident and looks forward to her new job working for an out-of-state political campaign. The woman is pleased that her personal computer was returned, Higgins says, but neither of them knows whether anyone looked through it.
“When you take someone’s electronically stored information, that you give it back is good,” Higgins says. “But it does not mean that it has not been accessed.”
In her official announcement Monday, Johnston did not address the police report or social media post that allegedly led to the departure of the former campaign manager.
The post office box, Johnston tells SFR, was set up specifically for the campaign, which contradicts the campaign manager’s story. Johnston says she was interviewed by police and that she explained that she did not steal her former campaign manager’s belongings, but instead was holding them for her.
“These types of, in my opinion, petty political ploys are to be expected in the often negative campaign world, and I am prepared to maintain focus on what’s important: our current climate crisis,” Johnston says. “This new direction that I’m taking, in my opinion, is the most effective way to do that.”
The move leaves Egolf unchallenged for the District 47 House seat he’s held for five terms. The official filing date for the race is March 10.