Morning Word

AG Calls for More Resources, Oversight of Disabled

Former state archaeology director sues governor, culture secretary

AG calls for more resources to protect disabled

More details emerged yesterday following the arrests of three people in connection with the death of a 38-year-old disabled woman, whose horrific alleged abuse from a caregiver in a state-run program prompted the state’s ongoing investigation of developmental disabilities health care providers. Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s office charged Mary Melero’s caretaker, Angelita Rene Chacon, 52, of Rio Rancho with five counts, including abuse or neglect of a resident resulting in death; her girlfriend Patricia Hurtado, 42, also of Rio Rancho, with four counts; and Luz Scott of Clovis with two counts. As detailed in a 27-page affidavit, Customs and Border Patrol agents discovered Melero in the rear seat of a white passenger van on Feb. 27 as defendants tried to take her to Mexico for medical treatment. Melero was severely dehydrated; drugged; had numerous open wounds; bruises and laceration; and couldn’t speak. She died April 7 in University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.

According to the AG’s office, a preliminary review of records of At Home Advocacy, one of the health department’s Developmental Disabilities Waiver Program contractors paid to care for Melero, indicates AHA received close to $250,000 for her care. In a statement, Torrez urged Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature “to take immediate action to overhaul the health and safety protocols at the Department of Health to ensure that this never happens again,” with increased staff; mandatory inspections every 90 days; mandatory referrals to law enforcement for abuse cases; raised penalties; and increased public awareness. In a news release, DOH says in addition to the inspections conducted last month, the state has contracted for an independent investigation of the program, which will be shared publicly upon completion. DOH “will use every tool at our disposal to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent future cases of abuse and neglect of our DD Waiver clients,” Secretary Patrick Allen said in a statement.

Rust armorer wants charges dropped

Attorneys for former Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed yesterday filed a motion for dismissal of charges against their client. First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies announced in January involuntary manslaughter charges against both Gutierrez-Reed and actor/producer Alec Baldwin, as well as a plea agreement on charges of negligent use of weapon against assistant director Dave Halls, saying all had culpability in the Oct. 21 on-set fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Last month, special prosecutors dropped the charges against Baldwin, who recently wrapped his time on the Rust set, which relocated to Montana and resumed filming. In their motion yesterday, Gutierrez-Reed’s attorneys argue charges against their client should be dismissed based on lack of prosecutorial authority and violation of Reed’s due process rights. Alternatively, they request reduced sanctions. Both before and after the state charged Reed in February, the motion says, “the investigation and prosecution of Reed was tainted by improper political motives” of Carmack-Altwies and former special prosecutor and state Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis. “They directed a sloppy investigation in which key evidence was destroyed, made overly aggressive charging decisions, including an elementary Constitutional mistake, and undertook road shows to disparage Reed and to promote their own personal brands.” The motion also notes issues raised by Baldwin’s lawyers: unconstitutional attempts by the prosecution to invoke a firearm enhancement law and allow Reeb to serve as both special prosecutor and a state representative. The lawyers also filed a motion to transfer evidence in the case from the sheriff’s department for forensics testing; a preliminary hearing for Gutierrez-Reed is scheduled for Aug. 9-16.

Former NM archaeologist sues state over firing

Former Director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies Eric Blinman, who was fired in February, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego and numerous other departments and members of her administration, alleging gender and race discrimination; as well as illegal retaliation. Blinman, 69, worked for the state for 17 years. His termination prompted nearly 120 museum professionals and public citizens to send a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham raising concerns about Garcia y Griego’s leadership. In the suit, Blinman contends he faced discrimination as an older white male, and retaliation for reporting a rumor the cabinet secretary was having an affair with a subordinate employee and for whistleblowing about mis-use of resources. The suit also alleges the governor protected Garcia y Griego due to their close friendship.

State receives props for early childhood education

The National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual “State of Preschool Yearbook” reports high marks for New Mexico’s investment and work in the arena, ranking the state in the top 10 for PreK for 4-year-olds and 13th for 3-year-olds, with the state meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks for PreK quality. “We’ve made incredible progress by increasing access to early education, raising teacher salaries and funding the largest PreK expansion in our state’s history, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “These investments establish New Mexico as a leader in early education.” A news release from the state Early Childhood Education & Care Department cites numerous examples of progress since 2018 in the state’s efforts surrounding PreK, including: boosting enrollment; increasing full-day PreK by 25 percentage points; creating a PreK Pay Parity program to compensate credentialed community-based PreK educators comparably to those in school-based classrooms; expanding compensation and hours to the tune of $109 million. “New Mexico has a historic and generational opportunity to build an early education and care system that meets families’ needs and supports healthy growth and development for children,” Early Childhood Department Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said in a statement. “High-quality PreK supports young children’s learning and social emotional development skills and prepares them for Kindergarten and beyond.”

Listen up

Santa Fe Art Institute’s Tilt podcast returns—as a video series. In the first episode in the new format, “If Water Could Talk, What Would She Say,” Changing Climate artist-in-residence and activist Angél Faz considers their family legacy and Dallas, Texas community by “preserving yet reimagining their personal relationship with how we access waterways.” The episode also considers New Mexico’s history with water and climate through the work of environmental reporter Laura Paskus, senior producer of New Mexico PBS’ Our Land program. This episode also features work by several other Changing Climate artists-in-residence.

Spice of life

New York resident Celeste Reyes has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of herself and others similarly impacted by Badia Spices’ alleged false claims to selling New Mexico chile. The suit, which was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, notes that Florida-based Badia Spices sells peppers described as “New Mexico Chili,” which are “replete with imagery associated with New Mexico in the form of indigenous markings and design.” But New Mexico chile is distinct, the suit accurately notes, and “hundreds of years of experience in chili farming has created an institutional knowledge passed down through generations, encompassing the most exacting details which promote quality.” Moreover, the lawsuit acknowledges climate change’s impact on New Mexico chile farming, not to mention efforts by lawmakers and the New Mexico Chile Association to protect the crop from false advertising. Enter Badia: “Even if consumers turned the package around they would not be informed the Product is not from New Mexico, because the ingredients identify ‘New Mexican chili’ and the label is not required to disclose its country of origin.” The product’s country of origin—Mexico—is only disclosed on the website, the suit notes. Reyes, and potentially others (the suit seeks class-action certification in New York and five other states) “read and relied on ‘New Mexico Chilis’ and the Native American graphics to believe it had a bona fide connection to the referenced place” and paid more “believing it had the attributes of those items which were from the designated location and supported the communities which grew them than she would have paid had she known it was from Mexico and not New Mexico.”

Make way for the literati

The Santa Fe International Literary Festival kicks off today for its second iteration, with co-founder Clare Hertel telling SFR the 2023 is intended “to underline that the world of writing and reading is more interconnected than ever.” Highlights of the impressive lineup include internationally-recognized writers such as John Irving, Gillian Flynn and Jennifer Egan, author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, and its 2022 companion novel The Candy House. While the first novel’s innovative integration of PowerPoint technology into fiction caught readers’ attention, The Candy House’s fictional “Own Your Unconscious” technology reflects the author’s interest in the relationship “between data and storytelling,” she tells SFR. In addition to national and internationally-known writers, this weekend also features local authors such as Hakim Bellamy, Deborah Taffa, Michael McGarrity and Denise Chavez. “It’s nice to focus not just on the big names from afar, but local people that have done so much for the literary community here in New Mexico and should be better known,” Hertel says. Some, but not all events, have sold out. Find tickets here.

May showers

The National Weather Service forecasts a 60% chance for precipitation today, with scattered showers and thunderstorms before 9 am; then showers likely and possibly thunderstorms throughout the day. Otherwise, it will be mostly cloudy, with a high temperature near 62 degrees and northeast wind 5 to 15 mph becoming southeast in the afternoon. The weekend looks much the same, although Saturday and Sunday should be sunnier…when it’s not raining.

Thanks for reading! In lieu of ambitious summer goals, The Word pledges to concoct at least one batch of watermelon agua fresca.

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