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TUES: State Education Officials Demand Oversight In Fraud Case, + More

Robert Smith
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New Mexico Monitors School Funds In Ex-Leader's Fraud Case - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials say they are demanding additional oversight of a narrow slice of federal funding awarded to Albuquerque Public Schools following a criminal probe into a former employee.

District officials reported the alleged fraud this summer after staff first noticed irregularities in contracts in the career and technical education department in 2018. That led to a criminal investigation regarding about $5 million in questionable contracts.

The New Mexico Public Education Department announced additional oversight on Tuesday, following the release Monday of a criminal indictment of state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who served as the district's technical education department coordinator.

She was fired from her job and resigned from the Legislature.

She also denied wrongdoing and said through an attorney Monday that she will fight the charges, which include 28 counts related to fraud, tax evasion and using her position to serve her own financial interests.

State officials say they will withhold around $1 million in federal funds until the district hires an ​​independent auditor, and trains staff on an improved plan to prevent waste and fraud. The district faces deadlines to meet some requirements in October.

State Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said his department "takes seriously the recent allegations" and "is committed to working cooperatively" with Albuquerque Public Schools.

Albuquerque Officials Lay Out Plan To Combat Violent Crime - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The mayor of New Mexico's largest city and other officials say they have a plan to address Albuquerque's record homicides and other violent crime.

Mayor Tim Keller presented details of the plan Tuesday. It includes 40 items that range from closing what many have referred to as a revolving door in the justice system to bolstering prevention and mental health programs.

The plan came together following a series of meetings over the summer with city administrators, law enforcement, court officials and others.

Keller, who is running for reelection, has been facing heat for not being able to contain crime in the city.

"We called everyone to the table because violent crime is unacceptable," the mayor said in a statement. "We are sick of it, we are tired of the dead ends of past 'one off' efforts, and we are holding each other accountable to do our part."

Keller's administration acknowledged that not each individual solution is unanimously supported by those who participated in the initiative but that every item has support from multiple partners and agencies.

Supporters see the measures specified in the plan as actions that will result in systemic change. They say the measures can be implemented through changes in state law, action by the city council and administratively by agencies and departments.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also touted the effort, saying she believes that tackling violent crime will have to be done across jurisdictions and by different branches of government.

Republican lawmakers in August had called on the Democratic governor to convene an immediate special legislative session to address what they described as an "out of control" problem that has become a public emergency.

The governor has said she has specific public safety goals for the session that starts in January.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina has been visibly frustrated in recent weeks, particularly after four police officers were shot and injured after responding to reports of a robbery.

"Ask any officer, and all they want is the opportunity to do what they signed up for — to fight crime and keep the community safe," Medina said in a statement. "But we can't achieve both goals when people who commit crimes are not held accountable, and they are not getting services they need."

The Albuquerque police force also is in the middle of reforms mandated by a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Some officers and others have said the situation has tied the department's hands.

Sylvester Stanley, the city's superintendent of police reform, said Albuquerque already is well down the path of reform and that the mayor and city council are committed to investing in the police department.

Albuquerque OKs No-Fares Pilot Program For City BusesAssociated Press

Albuquerque's public transit system won't charge fares for riding buses during a 12-month experiment starting Jan. 1.

The City Council voted Monday night to approve the pilot program after previously deferring the vote several times.

The council approved funding for the long-discussed project several months ago by setting aside $3 million to offset revenue laws, but several members recently had concerns about security on buses once fares aren't required.

The council voted 8-0 after being briefed by officials from the Department of Municipal Development's security division.

Supporters of the no-fare program said it will help low-income people who rely on the bus system to get around.

Biden Appointee Confirmed As Federal Judge For New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Las Cruces-based defense and civil rights attorney Margaret Strickland was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate to serve as a federal judge in New Mexico, where two prior nominees from former President Donald Trump were sidelined in the runup to the 2020 election.

Strickland was among President Joe Biden's first slate of nominees to the federal bench announced in March. She was confirmed Tuesday by a 52-45 vote of the Senate, including supportive votes by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján.

Prior nominations by Trump to fill two vacancies on the U.S. District Court in New Mexico were put on hold in September 2020 by Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, Luján's predecessor. They said Trump had politicized the judicial nominations process blatantly as a tool for campaigning shortly before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and deferred the vetting process until after the 2020 election.

Heinrich praised Strickland for her familiarity with the Southwest region along the U.S. boarder with Mexico and her work ethic.

The New Mexico U.S. District Court has relied on visiting judges to relieve pressure on its robust dockets of immigration and drug trafficking cases.

Republican Judge Kea W. Riggs filled a vacancy on the local U.S. District Court in 2019, and Trump also opened the way in 2017 for former Roswell-based attorney Joel Carson to join the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to take the place of Paul Joseph Kelly.

Strickland takes on the lifetime judicial appointment at age 41. She started her career at the Law Offices of the Public Defender for the state of New Mexico, from 2006 through 2011. She continued her career as a partner at McGraw & Strickland, representing more than 70 clients at trial and arguing before the state Supreme Court.

Among civil rights claims, Strickland represented Jillian and Andrew Beck in a lawsuit against two Las Cruces police officers on allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. The couple prevailed in a jury trial and received a $1.4 million settlement award in 2018.

Luján said that Strickland brings professional diversity to the federal courts as a former public defender.

GPS For Defendants In Bernalillo County To Be Monitored 24-7Associated Press

Defendants awaiting trial in Bernalillo County who wear GPS devices will be monitored more closely from now on.

The New Mexico Judiciary has announced the implementation of a plan next month to track ankle devices on felony defendants around-the-clock.

The Second Judicial District Court and Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court manage the electronic monitoring devices on weekdays during business hours. Now, new pretrial services staff at the Administrative Office of the Courts will watch the alert system nights, weekends and holidays.

If staff receive a "high alert," they will call the defendant and determine if there was a violation of pretrial release. Staff can also order a bench warrant for the defendant's arrest and check on the defendant's victim.

GPS monitoring devices set off an alert if a defendant has left house arrest, violated curfew, travels to an off-limits area or tampered with the device.

Airman On Trial In Arizona In Death Of Mennonite Woman - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Jury selection began Tuesday in a case against a U.S. Air Force airman accused of kidnapping a Mennonite woman, fatally shooting her and leaving her body in a forest clearing in northern Arizona.

Prosecutors have largely circumstantial evidence against Mark Gooch, 22, who was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in metropolitan Phoenix. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Sasha Krause, 27, and other charges.

Krause disappeared from a Mennonite community in Farmington, New Mexico, where she worked in the publishing ministry and occasionally taught Sunday school. Her body was found in late February 2020 outside Flagstaff, Arizona, with her wrists bound with duct tape.

Sheriff's officials who searched for Krause and those who investigated her death, along with cellphone data and ballistics experts, and people from Krause's community are expected to testify in the three-week trial in Coconino County Superior Court.

Krause and Gooch both grew up around the Mennonite faith but did not know each other, prosecutors said. They tied Gooch to her disappearance and death using cell phone records, Gooch's financial statements and receipts, and surveillance video from the Air Force base, they said. A state crime lab report showed a bullet taken from Krause's skull was fired from a .22-caliber rifle Gooch owned.

Gooch's cellphone was the only one communicating with the same cell towers as Krause's phone before hers dropped off west of Farmington, authorities said. Prosecutors aren't sure why he targeted Krause but argue he disliked Mennonites.

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, unsuccessfully sought to keep an expert for the prosecution from testifying about the cellphone data that he referred to as "weak science." He also sought to limit mentions of text messages conversations that Gooch had with his brothers that referred to Mennonites, saying the messages are not evidence of homicidal ill will.

Gooch was raised in a Mennonite community in Wisconsin but never officially became a member, he told investigators. He said he joined the military to escape what he saw as a difficult, sheltered and restricted life, according to sheriff's records.

He was stationed at the Air Force base in October 2019 and worked in equipment maintenance.

Krause was part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts. She moved to Farmington from Texas where she taught school.

On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, the Mennonite community sent remembrances to Krause's parents. Krause's students said she was a good teacher who read to them and played games with them. Krause preached hard work, even if it went unrecognized, others said.

She spoke Spanish and French, often immersed herself in books and easily could quote scripture. The community remembered her deep, dancing brown eyes and her quiet mannerisms, saying her time in Farmington was short but her impact long-lasting.

Paul Kaufman, general manager of Lamp and Light Publishers where Krause worked, said emotions that slowly were healing have bubbled up with the start of the trial. He said the community wants to feel safe and for whoever was responsible for killing Krause to repent.

"We did not see who showed up at the church that night and kidnapped Sasha," he said. "We did not see who committed that horrible act. We didn't see that. But God saw that."

Legislators Sue To Rein In Governor On Pandemic Relief - Associated Press

Legislators asked the New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday to limit Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's authority over more than $1 billion in federal relief.

The lawsuit from the Republican Party's top-ranked Senator and a Democratic colleague accuses Lujan Grisham of overstepping her constitutional authority.

"No one is above the law and no one person should ever have the power to decide, unilaterally, how much people are taxed or how public money is spent," Democratic State Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque said in a statement.

The lawsuit, also was brought by Senate Republican minority floor leader Gregory Baca of Belen, says that the governor has taken over the Legislature's authority by appropriating more than $600 million in federal funds provided under relief legislation signed by President Biden in March.

It says another $1 billion is at stake and that the governor has pressured most lawmakers into ceding to her authority.

"The court must now act to rebalance the scales of power and protect the Legislature's important yet fragile power over the purse strings of state government," the lawsuit states.

Lujan Grisham has tapped the disputed relief funds to replenish the state unemployment insurance trust and underwrite millions of dollars in sweepstakes prizes for people who got vaccinated.

The governor's office has said appropriation of federal funds falls to the executive branch of state government and that Lujan Grisham welcomes collaboration with legislators.

Grand Jury Indicts Ex-lawmaker In Alleged Kickback Scheme - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A former high-ranking Democratic state legislator and Albuquerque public school administrator has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of racketeering, money laundering, fraud and ethics violations in connection with an alleged kickback scheme, prosecutors said Monday.

The charges against former state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton were filed in state District Court in Albuquerque and confirmed by the state attorney general's office.

A defense attorney for Stapleton was not immediately available to respond to the charges. The indictment lists 28 charges, including 10 counts of using an official act for personal financial gain as well as a tax evasion charge.

Stapleton previously denied related allegations enclosed in a warrant, even as she resigned her legislative post in July as the second-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives. 

She was fired in late-August by the Albuquerque public school system from her position in vocational education amid administrative and criminal probes into her ties to a private contractor for the state's largest school district.

Authorities for months have been investigating Stapleton's possibly illegal connections to the company Robotics Learning Management that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district, and whether she received financial kickbacks.

The school district's review extends to activities dating back to 2006. At least 11 employees were initially placed on administrative leave.

New Mexico has witnessed a string of criminal convictions against high-level public officials in recent years. 

Last week, former state Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla was fined and sentenced to community service over embezzlement and illicit computer access. 

Jail sentences were handed down on convictions in 2018 against former state Sen. Phil Griego for using his position as a legislator to profit off the sale of a state-owned building and in 2015 against ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran for using campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction.

Native Americans Aim To Boost Voting Power In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A coalition of Native American communities has proposed redrawing New Mexico's political map to boost Indigenous voters' influence in elections.

The proposed changes from New Mexico's 19 Native American pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, outlined Monday, would reshape a congressional swing district where Republicans regained control in 2020. They would also bolster Native American majorities among eligible voters in six state House and three Senate districts in northwestern New Mexico.

"Through the proposed boundary changes, we worked hard to maintain tribal voting power, develop new voting districts with Native American influence, and to bring New Mexico closer to parity after a century of voter disenfranchisement and suppression," contributors to the proposals wrote.

The proposals were submitted to a committee that will provide recommendations to the Legislature at the end of October. The Democrat-led Legislature can draw its own lines. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham must approve the redistricting, and court challenges are possible.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to Secretary of the Interior.

The share of New Mexicans who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry is 12.4%. Alaska is the most predominantly Native American state, followed by Oklahoma and then New Mexico.

Four Indigenous tribes have joined together for the first time to form a stronger voting bloc within one Senate district that might unite Acoma, Laguna, Isleta and Zuni pueblos.

Other proposed changes would split the Mescalero Apache reservation between two congressional district — in hopes of expanding that tribe's voice in Congress.

New Mexico Hearing Begins For Next Round Of Oil, Gas Rules - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is now the nation's second largest oil producing state, and environmental officials say more needs to be done to rein in pollution from the industry. 

They are proposing another set of rules as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's initiative to address climate change. This time, the state is focusing on the kinds of pollution — volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides — that react with sunlight to form harmful levels of ground-level ozone.

A hearing began Monday. Members of the state Environmental Improvement Board over the next two weeks will hear from dozens of experts and see reams of technical data, but it will be months before a final decision is made.

Before calling her first witnesses, an attorney for the New Mexico Environment Department argued that the board has a duty to address rising ozone concentrations rather than wait until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forces the state to take action under provisions of the Clean Air Act.

"This rule-making is the first time the department has taken steps to seriously regulate the oil and gas sector and it is taking place in the context of a massive expansion of this industry in New Mexico over the last several years," said attorney Lara Katz.

New Mexico is home to part of the the Permian Basin — one of the world's richest oil producing regions. Revenues from development there and in the San Juan Basin in the opposite corner of New Mexico are key to state spending on public education. Lawmakers also have created an endowment for early childhood education programs that is fueled by oil and gas revenues.

The industry generally supports the proposal but wants to ensure that regulators balance the need to reduce pollution with the viability of oil and gas development.

Attorney Eric Hiser, who represents the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the rule is expensive whether you consider industry estimates of more than $3 billion or the lesser $1.5 billion cited by state witnesses. He urged the board to "pay attention to questions where we may be able to keep effective regulation but do so at lower costs to New Mexicans." 

He also suggested that the proposed rules would have only a limited impact on overall ozone levels, noting that significant pollution also comes from the transportation sector. 

"It's not a silver bullet that's going to solve all of New Mexico's attainment issues, as much as we in industry wish it would," Hiser said.

The state expects the rule to lead to reductions in ozone-causing pollution that would equal taking 8 million cars off the road every year. Methane emissions also would be reduced as a result, officials have said.

The rules proposed by the Environment Department are part of a two-pronged approach, which state officials have touted as the most comprehensive effort in the U.S. to tackle pollution blamed for exacerbating climate change. State oil and gas regulators adopted separate rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce methane pollution.

The Environment Department has removed all exemptions from an earlier draft of the rule. The proposal includes minimum requirements for operators to calculate their emissions and have them certificated by an engineer and to find and fix leaks on a monthly basis.

If companies violate the rules, they could be hit with notices of violation, orders to comply and possibly civil penalties.

Attorneys for regional and national environmental groups that have intervened in the case told the board the rule is a good first step toward protecting public health and the environment but that more can be done, including requiring emissions data submitted by operators to be made public.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Still May Alter COVID-19 Protocol - Associated Press

City officials say they have not ruled out requiring proof of vaccination at next month's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The annual hot air balloon festival is back after being canceled last year because of COVID-19.

City officials say they are watching how the New Mexico state fair plays out as they weight last-minute changes.

Mayor Tim Keller tells KOAT-TV that organizers are nevertheless ready for the 100,000 attendees expected to converge for the event, which starts Oct. 2. He says he is encouraged as the number of cases statewide appears to be plateauing.

Officials say there are ample safety measures in place. Sam Parks, festival director of operations, says masks and social distancing will be required. Tables and chairs will be cleaned constantly. Sanitation stations will be set up throughout the park.

Still, visitors should be prepared for changes even during the week-long event. 

New Mexico School Districts To Gain Funds For Mental Health - Associated Press

Three New Mexico school districts have been awarded funding to bolster mental health services over the next several years. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the state Public Education Department was bestowed earlier this month with a five-year, $8.9 million federal grant.

The state has selected districts in Santa Fe, Farmington and Socorro to get grants to help students struggling mentally. 

The districts were chosen partly because of they serve many low-income students and students who speak English as a second language. 

The funds come from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The program, dubbed Project AWARE, will cover mental health trainings for staff.

Santa Fe Public Schools hopes to bring culturally specific mental and behavioral health services for Native American students, according to Sue O'Brien, a district student wellness coordinator. 

Farmington Municipal Schools Superintendent Eugene Schmidt says they intend to hire a behavioral health clinician. 

Educators say students have had to adjust to being back to in-person learning after a year of being isolated by the pandemic. Several have also suffered deaths in the family due to COVID-19.

In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported increases in children going to the emergency room for a mental health crisis.

California Water Agencies Resolve Colorado River Dispute - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Two major California water agencies have settled a lawsuit that once threatened to derail a multi-state agreement to protect a river that serves millions of people in the U.S. West amid gripping drought.

The Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single recipient of Colorado River water, sued the Metropolitan Water District twice in the past two years. The agencies announced Monday they have reached a settlement that resolves both lawsuits.

Under the agreement, Imperial can store water in Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border under Metropolitan's account. Imperial will contribute water under a regional drought contingency plan if California is called on to help stave off further water cuts. 

Imperial spokesman Antonio Ortega said the agency is hopeful that its partners in California and across the Colorado River basin recognize the opportunities to work together. The river serves 40 million people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. 

"But also," he said, "to make sure those environmental challenges like the ones we face every day here at the Salton Sea will be a part of the discussion to make sure it's being addressed, and IID's concerns are not ignored."

Imperial sued Metropolitan, alleging the water agency that serves Los Angeles violated a state environmental law when it sidestepped Imperial in the drought contingency talks. The Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled against Imperial, which appealed to the California Court of Appeals earlier this year.

Another complaint filed in 2020 accused Metropolitan of breaching a contract related to storing Colorado River water in Lake Mead. Metropolitan denied the allegations. A trial was scheduled for April 2022.

Those cases became moot with the agreement signed last week that also outlines regular talks between the agencies to respond to drought, according to court documents. Metropolitan said it will support Imperial's efforts to restore the Salton Sea and to secure more funding for the massive, briny lake southeast of Los Angeles.

Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resources manager for Metropolitan, said Monday that Imperial's ability to store water under a sub account provides more flexibility in retrieving the water. But the capacity is less than what Imperial would have received under the drought contingency plan, and Imperial's voluntary contributions won't be as high either, he said.

The agreement marks the end of legal fights and a return to working together, he said. Already, water users in the West are talking about what will replace an existing set of guidelines for the Colorado River and the overlapping drought contingency plan that expire in 2026.

Imperial has rights to more than one-third of the water allocated to the three states in the river's lower basin and Mexico.

"They have to be at the table," Hasencamp said. "They have to be a party."

Seven Western states finalized the drought plan in 2019 to keep the water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell — upstream on the Arizona-Utah border — from dropping substantially. Still, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever shortage in water supply for 2022 that will impact Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

The Imperial Irrigation District essentially was written out of California's part of the drought plan when Metropolitan pledged to contribute most of the state's voluntary cuts to avoid delays in implementing the plan. Imperial's support hinged on securing $200 million in federal funding to address environmental and health hazards at the Salton Sea, which it did not receive.

The inland sea formed in 1905 after the Colorado River breached a dike and flooded a basin has been shrinking, exposing a lakebed with microscopic wind-blown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma.

The state of California has budgeted an additional $40 million for restoration efforts at the Salton Sea, but it's not enough, Ortega said.

"We need additional support, and things seem to be moving in that direction," Ortega said. "We would hope that it would move quicker."

Albuquerque Man Accused Of Fatally Shooting Panhandler - Associated Press

Albuquerque police say an 18-year-old man shot and killed a person who was panhandling in an unprovoked attack.

Authorities say Isaiah Luna was booked into Metro Detention Center on suspicion of murder several hours after the Sunday morning shooting.

According to police, Luna and his mother returned to the intersection where the killing happened. His mother then informed investigators her son was behind the shooting and the gun used was in his car.

During questioning, Luna said he was acting in self-defense. He said the man had punched him in the face.

Police say surveillance video of their interaction before shooting showed the victim at no time hit Luna or tried to enter his car.

It was not immediately known Monday if Luna had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

Navajo Nation Reports 17 More COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 17 more COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,548 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The death toll now is at 1,431.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.