For the first time, SFR and New Mexico In Depth can present vignettes of Gov. Martinez’ pardon files—stories about crime, punishment and redemption. If not for a years-long legal fight, the public likely would never have seen the stories. In 2013, SFR sued the governor for failing to turn over various public records. The most significant of them were the applications people made to the governor requesting pardons. Martinez’ office argued executive privilege shielded the pardon files from disclosure.
Brenna Ellis thinks the Trump stuff on social media played a part. She pushed for the New York reality TV star’s rogue candidacy on Facebook during the 2016 election season. Meanwhile, she was making a big ask of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who had publicly feuded with Trump over his comments about immigrants and Martinez’ running of the state. Ellis, 51, wanted the governor to issue a pardon for her 2001 felony conviction on conspiracy to commit arson. An act of mercy from Martinez would give Ellis, who served six months in jail and has been free for more than 15 years, a clean record and enable her plumbing company to secure government contracts.
Federal law enforcement’s goal was to “infiltrate” local gun- and drug-dealing organizations supplied by Mexican cartels when they descended on Albuquerque in 2016. But the four-month sting, whose cost likely topped $1 million in taxpayer money, rounded up mostly low-level drug users and few, if any, hardcore dealers. That didn’t stop the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from pushing the operation as a “template for future operations” nationwide. And Damon Martinez — U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico at the time and current candidate for the state’s First Congressional District — was so pleased he “asked and offered to travel to the city selected for the next” operation to “sell the … product” to that city’s top federal prosecutor. The stated purpose, budget and Martinez’s enthusiasm are among the revelations found in a heavily redacted “executive summary report” about the 2016 operation — named “Gideon IX” — obtained by New Mexico In Depth after a federal judge ordered its release.
A debate over how so many black people came to be arrested in a 2016 gun- and drug-sting operation in Albuquerque is playing out in the city’s federal courthouse. Following months of silence from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a narrative is beginning to emerge. It’s a story of good police work. According to this version, a pivotal moment happened a few days after the operation started in April 2016. Albuquerque Police Department detective Vic Hernandez handed ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson two sets of documents.
On her last day as chief of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico in February, Judge Christina Armijo granted a motion from the lawyers representing Lonnie Jackson and Diamond Coleman. Prosecutors, the order said, must turn over all background checks run through the National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) database during a 2016 law enforcement sting operation in Albuquerque. Jackson and Coleman, two of the 28 black people arrested in the federal Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)’s operation, are trying to prove the agency racially profiled them in a massive undercover operation. Armijo’s order represented a step toward that goal. The NCIC queries, not only for the 103 people arrested during the four-month operation but everyone ATF agents investigated but did not pursue, would enable them to test their theory.
Days before federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced more than 100 arrests from an undercover operation in Albuquerque in 2016, the sting’s lead agent was thinking about who, exactly, had been arrested.
“If anybody ever asks if we are going after the worst of the worst or righteous targets, show them this list,” Special Agent Russell Johnson of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote in an Aug. 4, 2016, email to colleagues.”These are people for our second wave takedown.”
The email names 24 individuals and notes each person’s probation or parole status: 14 had successfully completed their obligations to the state, two were listed as “current and compliant probationer/parolee,” three had never been on probation or parole and four were “absconders.”
The 24 names are blacked out, as are the sender and recipients of the email and a handful of other words. Eight days after Johnson dashed off the email, a phalanx of high-ranking local, state and federal law enforcement officials told the press they had taken “the worst of the worst” off the city’s crime-ridden streets. The controversial operation has come under scrutiny over the past year for the highly disproportionate number of black people who were arrested. Meanwhile, the sting netted few, if any, of the hardened, repeat violent criminals supposedly targeted.
How and even whether the Albuquerque Police Department was involved in a 2016 undercover federal drug and gun sting has lingered for more than a year under scrutiny from legal scholars, defense lawyers and New Mexico In Depth. Police and city officials under previous Mayor Richard Berry’s administration denied the department was involved. Now, with a new mayor at City Hall and new leadership at APD, the city is acknowledging the department had a “minimal role” in the sting, which was led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). That included “cross-commissioned” APD officers who have long worked as part of an ATF task force assisting the federal agency during the operation. Whatever the size of APD’s role, the department’s involvement appears to have led, in part, to one of the more controversial aspects of the sting operation: the arrest of black people at a rate highly disproportionate to their population in the city.
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Boone wanted to reassure his boss. A political blogger was raising questions in early February about why the DA’s office had agreed to plead Ryan Flynn’s aggravated DWI charge, leveled after a May 20, 2017, traffic stop, down to careless driving. Flynn, one of the state’s most influential power brokers, was Gov. Susana Martinez’s former Environment Department secretary, and now heads up the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. In a Feb. 8 email, Boone told Bernalillo County DA Raúl Torrez he believed the case against Flynn could clear an initial legal hurdle.
New Mexico’s judges are the lowest paid in the country. Its chronically underfunded public defenders struggle to represent clients in one of the nation’s poorest states. And prosecutors say they need more money to blunt increases in crime. This situation awaits New Mexico state lawmakers when they convene Tuesday for the 2018 session in Santa Fe. But, for the first time in years, thanks to a projected $200 million to $300 million more in revenue than anticipated, the Legislature could spread serious money around New Mexico’s skeletal criminal justice system after recent budget cuts and years of austerity.
A federal judge has taken the unusual step of ordering a politically ambitious New Mexico attorney to pay back the state for filing a “frivolous” lawsuit aimed at undoing efforts to reform the state’s commercial bail system. The attorney, Blair Dunn, a Libertarian who earlier this week announced a run for state attorney general, must pay “reasonable costs and attorneys fees” to the office he seeks to occupy by year’s end, under the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert A. Junell. Junell, a George W. Bush appointee from the Western District of Texas, presided over the suit because the Attorney General’s Office represented the judges Dunn was suing, from the New Mexico Supreme Court, the Second Judicial District Court and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Dunn sued last year on behalf of a group of state lawmakers, the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico and a woman who was released from jail last year. Junell dismissed the case with prejudice in December, meaning it cannot be refiled.