Over the last 18 months NMID has closely examined the ATF sting operation, its design, its impact and the legal wrangling that continues to play out in federal court in more than two dozen stories.
Of the 103 people arrested 28 — 27 percent of the total — were black. That’s compared to the city’s 3 percent black population. Further, black people made up just 5 percent of defendants in gun and drug cases in New Mexico’s federal courts during a 10-year period. Racial profiling allegations and admonitions from federal judges have followed the team that descended on Albuquerque around the nation, NMID found.
Attack ads, political bottle tossing and recriminations have marked this year’s race to replace outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez, who is leaving office due to term limits. The campaign’s increasingly dark tone illustrates the state of play in politics here in New Mexico and across the nation. But under the tribalism lies something else: A set of stark differences in visions held by the two candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, who have both abandoned seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for a shot at the Governor’s Mansion. During three televised debates, Pearce and Lujan Grisham have hurled broadsides and frontal attacks at one another on a host of issues bedeviling the state — from education to immigration, economic development to marijuana legalization, energy to water conservation. Clashes over how to address New Mexico’s persistently high crime rates, particularly in Albuquerque, have torched some of the race’s oxygen, too.
A new federal court filing indicates the practice of secrecy at New Mexico federal courts expands beyond the improper sealing of documents to improperly closing off court proceedings from the public. Assistant Federal Public Defenders John Robbenhaar and Aric Elsenheimer filed a document last week alleging that an Aug. 3 court hearing was sealed — meaning no one besides parties to the case could enter during the proceeding — without their knowledge. A transcript of the hearing also was sealed without their input, the filing says. On Sept.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years. “There has been a long-standing practice in the District of New Mexico for parties to elect to file a document under seal, without prior approval of the district court,” attorney John Robbenhaar wrote in an emailed response to questions from NMID.
The secret filing means the public cannot view — or scrutinize — the U.S. Attorney’s defense of Yusef Casanova’s arrest, which federal public defender Brian Pori has challenged. Last month Pori argued in a motion that he had enough evidence to prove ATF agents and informants targeted Casanova because he’s black and asked Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker to drop methamphetamine trafficking and illegal firearm possession charges.
In a filing Wednesday afternoon prosecutors noted their reason for responding to Pori’s original motion under seal, writing it “identifies by name a number of uncharged subjects of the (operation) and references the content of other sealed filings.”
But Pori told NMID the government did not need to name people who had been identified for investigation but not arrested. Prosecutors could’ve blacked the names out of the document, but left its defense of Casanova’s arrest for the public to see, he noted.
Yusef Casanova believes he has enough evidence to prove federal law enforcement targeted him because he’s black. Casanova, whose case NMID highlighted in a May 2017 investigation, is asking a federal judge to drop federal drug and gun charges from a controversial monthslong 2016 sting operation in Albuquerque and give him his freedom back. The motion, filed last month in federal court, contends there is evidence that shows agents and informants of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) racially profiled Casanova and other African Americans in the operation. Casanova sold an ounce of meth and a gun to an undercover ATF agent in June 2016; he was arrested weeks later and has been locked up pending trial ever since. His white supplier — who was present when Casanova brokered the drug sale — was never arrested.
For the second time in a year, Albuquerque police officer Joshua Montaño found himself handcuffing a high-profile politico with ties to Gov. Susana Martinez. Montaño arrested state Rep. Monica Youngblood on May 20 on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving, first offense, after he believed she performed poorly on field sobriety tests at a DWI checkpoint on Albuquerque’s west side, then refused to take a breath-alcohol test. A year to the day earlier, on May 20, 2017, the veteran DWI officer arrested one of the state’s most influential political insiders, former Martinez Environment Department secretary and current New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Ryan Flynn, on suspicion of DWI. Flynn’s case was dismissed; Youngblood’s is just beginning to wend its way through the courts. Given the Albuquerque Republican’s high-profile stance as a Martinez-friendly, tough-on-crime legislator, her unopposed victory in the June 5 primary election and calls for her to abandon her legislative seat, Youngblood’s arrest has kicked up a political stir.
An analysis of hundreds of pages of documents shows that Gov. Susana Martinez has granted just three pardons since taking office, and petitions for clemency have fallen by 75 percent compared with her predecessors.
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.