Officials trying to stop ‘longstanding corruption’ in Sunland Park
Many believe Sunland Park’s elections and government have long been tainted by fraud and corruption, but law enforcement says it hasn’t had the evidence to pounce on many of the crimes – until now.
Officials involved in the current investigation of Sunland Park say public corruption has been a problem in the city for years, and the district attorney says additional criminal charges will be filed as the extent of that corruption becomes clearer.
More charges will be filed in the pending voter fraud case, Doña Ana County District Attorney Amy Orlando told NMPolitics.net. In addition, she said it’s likely that an investigation into the improper issuance of driver’s licenses by the state Motor Vehicle Division’s Sunland Park office to people who lacked required paperwork will also lead to charges.
Law enforcement and local and state government officials from both major political parties have come together in recent weeks to seize the opportunity to stop, or at least deter, corruption in the border city of 14,000 residents. The secretary of state, state auditor, New Mexico State Police, district attorney, Las Cruces Police Department and county clerk have all pitched in.
“It’s longstanding corruption, and longstanding feelings that they’re able to use the taxpayers’ money for their own use versus using it for the community,” said Orlando, a Republican.
Law enforcement has investigated public corruption allegations in Sunland Park before. But though a municipal judge, Horacio Favela, and his wife were convicted on electoral fraud charges in 2009, that seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the 11 people charged so far this year in the separate but related cases all centered on allegedly keeping one faction in power so its leaders could abuse public money.
“They got careless this year,” Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins, a Democrat, said about why officials have been able to allegedly catch Sunland Park officials in the act.
Intimidation and fear
The convictions of Favela and his wife came when Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, ran the district attorney’s office in Las Cruces. She also oversaw a probe of voter fraud allegations that followed the 2010 municipal election – an investigation that ultimately led to no charges being filed. Martinez believes the current situation presents a unique opportunity to help clean up the border city.
“In the governor’s experience, government officials in the City of Sunland Park have unquestionably operated in a very insular manner, with little transparency, and in a manner that often intimidated city employees and even residents who might otherwise serve as potential witnesses in these cases,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said.
“Fortunately (and unfortunately), the nature, number and extent of the crimes that have allegedly occurred in Sunland Park are so significant this time around that there seems to be a greater willingness on the part of residents and city employees to cooperate with law enforcement and other agencies,” Darnell said.
It has not always been that way. Many (including me) have suggested that widespread corruption has existed in Sunland Park for a long time. But investigators have looked into allegations in recent years and, with the exception of Favela, officials haven’t been charged.
Martinez and State Auditor Hector Balderas have said intimidation of potential witnesses is a problem. Ellins said the informant who first brought the allegations against Favela to law enforcement refused to share an identity because of fear.
And Orlando has said former Sunland Park Mayor-elect Daniel Salinas, the man at the center of the alleged criminal scheme investigators are currently trying to take down, may have ties to Mexican drug cartels. Orlando said one witness left his home and is staying elsewhere because he fears Salinas.
The attorney for Salinas, who forfeited the mayor’s office despite winning the March 6 election because he’s facing felony charges and couldn’t be sworn in, says the cartel allegation is false. Regardless, it’s part of the rumor mill in Sunland Park that has led to the culture of fear.
2010 voter fraud probe led to no charges
Two years ago, Ellins said, his office turned over about 15 absentee ballots to law enforcement because the signatures on those ballots didn’t match the signatures on those voters’ registration forms.
“In some cases, it wasn’t even close,” Ellins said.
Martinez didn’t convene a grand jury to compel testimony, and many of those voters would not cooperate with investigators, so no charges were filed, Ellins said. “But I’m still convinced some of those absentee ballots were filled out by people other than those whose names were on the ballots,” he said.
Orlando tells the story differently. She said 19 ballots were deemed suspicious during that 2010 probe. Investigators found 11 of the 19 voters, and, “even if it looked funny,” each said the signature on the absentee ballot was theirs and that they had voted in the election.
The others “were simply gone” by the time the district attorney’s investigators got involved months after the March 2010 election, she said.
“There was no proof, once we investigated, that somebody forged their signature,” Orlando said.
Martinez agreed. Other than the convictions of Favela and his wife, Darnell said, “allegations that were investigated” during Martinez’s tenure as district attorney “lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.”
Ellins said he wasn’t accusing Martinez of not doing her job – or saying she did do her job. “I just know what the investigators told me,” he said.
‘We are going to have more arrests’
Orlando said the 2010 probe didn’t focus on the same electoral fraud allegations that have led to charges this year – that officials were pushing El Paso, Texas residents to register to vote and actually vote in Sunland Park.
As part of the current probe, Ellins’ office recently completed a comparison of El Paso voter rolls with the list of people who voted in this year’s election. He turned it over to Orlando, who said law enforcement has narrowed the list of potentially fraudulent voters down to approximately 170.
That could be significant enough to have affected the outcome of the election. Salinas defeated his closest opponent, Gerardo Hernandez, by 84 votes. One council race was decided by eight votes.
But some of those 170 may not be fraudulent. For example, some could have moved from El Paso to Sunland Park without canceling their Texas registrations. They might no longer be voting in Texas and be legally voting in Sunland Park.
Still, Orlando expects that many of those will be deemed fraudulent. Several have already been verified as fraudulent votes – including two cast by an elderly El Paso couple that is cooperating with investigators.
Three state police investigators are currently assigned to track down each potentially fraudulent voter and determine whether crimes were committed.
Such crimes are fourth-degree felonies. Orlando has offered amnesty to people who voted illegally if they were pressured to do so and cooperate with investigators, but those who acted intentionally to help Salinas be elected by voting illegally or pressuring others to do so will be charged, she said.
“We are going to have more arrests,” she said.
Orland didn’t provide many details on the investigation of the MVD office in Sunland Park, but did say that office had issued licenses to people who lacked required documentation.
“I anticipate that there will be arrests coming out of that investigation,” she said.
Other probes are also ongoing. Balderas’ chief of staff, Evan Blackstone, said auditors are “currently conducting test work, and we’re moving very quickly to produce a report and recommendation to the governor” on whether the state should take charge of some functions in Sunland Park. The work of the auditor’s office also could help lead to additional criminal charges.
In addition to the state and local investigations, the FBI is looking into the situation in Sunland Park.
Is the culture of fear fading away?
Without one man coming forward, it’s possible none of this would have come to light and Salinas would be mayor. Hernandez, the alleged victim in the extortion case, reported that threat to law enforcement, and things moved quickly from there.
Salinas and others allegedly conspired to secretly record video of Hernandez getting a lap dance and then use the video to force him from the mayoral race. When Hernandez allegedly received the extortion threat, he took it to law enforcement instead of quitting the race.
Given the culture of fear that has existed in Sunland Park, Ellins said one “might conclude” that Hernandez took a great risk by coming forward.
Though some will disagree, Hernandez said he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“I consider myself a regular citizen that knows his responsibility to report a crime when it is necessary,” he said.
Hernandez said he trusts the justice system but also feared that there wouldn’t be enough evidence to prove extortion.
Orlando said now that Hernandez has stepped forward and so many people have been charged, others who know about alleged crimes are coming forward. Perhaps the culture of fear in Sunland Park is fading away.
But will arresting corrupt officials be enough make Sunland Park’s government one that serves residents rather than a system that officials allegedly use for personal gain?
“I hope it at least sends a message that there are consequences, and that it will encourage people who want to do the right thing for Sunland Park to come out and run for office and be civic leaders,” Orlando said.
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