Maps: ATF Albuquerque sting in context

Competing narratives have emerged about how agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) chose targets for a sweeping undercover sting operation in Albuquerque last year. A handful of defense attorneys who represent people arrested in the sting allege “selective enforcement” — essentially that ATF engaged in racial profiling as part of the agency’s strategy. They point to statistics: 28 of the 103 defendants are black — 27 percent — in a city with a 3 percent black population, and in a state where blacks made up just 5 percent of drug and gun defendants in federal court from 2006 to 2015. The defense lawyers also have questioned some of ATF’s tactics, many of which were detailed in a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories published last month, as they seek more information about the operation and, ultimately, dismissal of their clients’ charges. ATF has repeatedly ignored NMID’s request for comment about the operation.

Federal public defender: In America people of color have been labeled with a broad brush

On May 7, New Mexico In Depth published a story that closely examined the mechanics and results of a high-profile undercover sting operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) last year in Albuquerque. At a news conference in August, federal officials trumpeted the sting operation as an “unprecedented” success, saying they brought in “the best of the best to deal with the worst of the worst.”

NMID found a far more complicated picture. Rather than the “worst of the worst,” ATF arrested many low-level individuals who were struggling with substance abuse issues. Some were homeless or living in cars. Many of those arrested were not the violent, hardened criminals or the big-time traffickers federal officials said they were after.

ATF used traveling, well-paid informants in ABQ sting

One of the men who helped the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) search for potential targets in a sweeping undercover drug and gun sting operation in Albuquerque last year is paid an $80,000 annual salary, court filings show. The man appears to have been released early from a 10-year federal prison sentence and goes “around the country with his handlers creating crime for the government to prosecute” as a ‘“confidential informant,” the documents say. Another informant ATF brought to Albuquerque for the operation is paid $1,400 a week plus occasional “bonuses,” he said under oath, according to a recording from a state court hearing obtained by New Mexico In Depth. He did not say what the bonuses were for. That informant considers working for the ATF his full-time job.

Martinez vetoes solitary reform, ‘ban the box’ bills

Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday vetoed two criminal justice reform bills that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. The first, House Bill 175, would have banned the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico’s jails and prisons for pregnant women and children. The measure also would have restricted the controversial practice of leaving people in a cell for 22 hours a day or more with no meaningful human interaction for people living with mental illness. Martinez, a two-term Republican governor who previously spent 25 years as a prosecutor, also vetoed a bill that would have restricted private employers from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal histories. In her veto message on the solitary confinement bill, Martinez cited the safety of corrections officers and a need to lock certain children sentenced to adult prisons away alone as her reasons for killing the measure.

Competitor: ABQ ‘rigged’ new body cam agreement for Taser

A Georgia-based police body camera manufacturer is alleging Albuquerque officials used an “inappropriate and illegal” process to reach a tentative agreement with Taser International Inc. for cameras and online video storage at the state’s largest law enforcement agency. Ted Davis, president and CEO of Utility Associates, Inc., filed a formal protest this week saying Taser’s initial bid of $4.7 million should have been disqualified last year because it did not meet the city’s requirements spelled out in a request for proposals. Chief among Davis’ allegations is that Taser low-balled its initial bid by not including specific prices for cameras and other required equipment — a claim reviewed by a New Mexico In Depth using public records related to the RFP. “That should’ve been it,” Davis said in a telephone interview with NMID from his office in Decatur, Ga. “It should’ve been over at that point.”

Utility Associates would have won the contract because it scored second highest behind Taser among the city’s seven-member selection committee.

Executive Director of Parole Board resigns, takes new state job

The executive director of the New Mexico Parole Board has moved to another state job, as fresh controversy surrounds the board’s handling of parole hearings for the state’s “30-year lifer” inmates and lawmakers consider a bill that would check the board’s power.  Sherry Stephens’ last day as executive director was Friday, Parole Board Operations Manager Megan Moreno told New Mexico In Depth and SFR. Stephens gave two weeks’ notice on Feb. 27 and is now working at the state department of Aging and Long Term Services.  Moreno said Stephens was not fired from her position at the state agency, which oversees the conditions of release for thousands of parolees around the state each year and decides whether people charged with certain capital crimes go free.

NM Auditor: Conflict of interest found in Corrections Dept. Audit

A former deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Corrections Department was put in charge of the financial relationship between the department and a television production company for which she had worked only months before, according to a new report from the state Auditor’s Office. It appears that Alex Sanchez waived at least $20,000 in fees owed by Lucky 8 TV, LLC, to the Corrections Department in June 2016 after having left  the company’s employ just three months earlier, the report shows. The state Auditor’s evidence for that claim is an email Sanchez sent employees of the company in which she noted the waived fees for the filming of Lucky 8’s prison reality series, “Behind Bars: Rookie Year.”

The Corrections Department could not provide any evidence or documentation that anyone other than Sanchez determined the amounts to be billed to the production company. Additionally, Lucky 8 was allowed to begin filming a third season of its show last year even though the company still owed the state $42,000 from the previous two seasons, the audit found. The arrangement amounted to a conflict of interest in which “not all of the decisions appear to be in the best interest of the state,” the auditors said.

Bills would limit solitary confinement, require reporting in NM

House and Senate lawmakers are pushing identical proposals that would abolish solitary confinement for pregnant women and children and steeply curtail its use on people living with mental illness in New Mexico’s jails and prisons. If passed into law, supporters say either bill would provide a statutory definition for “isolated confinement” in the state and much needed transparency on the scope of the controversial practice of leaving inmates alone in their cells for 22 hours a day or more with little to no contact with others and few opportunities to participate in educational or rehabilitative programs.

“Right now, we do not know on any given day if it’s 100 or 1,000 people in isolated confinement in the state of New Mexico,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the Democratic sponsor of HB175, said. “Once we have some data, we can have confidence that the Corrections Department and the counties are scaling back the use of solitary confinement.”

Numerous studies, including one by the advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, have shown that isolation in a prison cell can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and create new ones where none existed before. The United Nations and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have argued that solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing, and condemned its use. New Mexico has a troubled history with solitary confinement.