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FRI: Screams and threats as New Mexico counties certify vote, + More

Couy Griffin, a commissioner in Otero County, N.M., speaks to journalists as he leaves the federal court in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2022.
Gemunu Amarasinghe
Couy Griffin, a commissioner in Otero County, N.M., speaks to journalists as he leaves the federal court in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2022.

Screams, threats as New Mexico counties certify vote - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press

Commissioners in a New Mexico county have certified the results from their primary election after spurring a standoff over election integrity that was fueled by conspiracy theories about the security of voting equipment.

Otero County commissioners opted 2-1 to certify the results during an emergency meeting as New Mexico counties faced a deadline Friday for certification of the vote. The two who voted to certify said they had no choice under state law and could be only a rubber stamp.

The commissioners also acknowledged an order by the state Supreme Court and subsequent threats of legal action by the Democratic state attorney general.

While there has been no evidence of fraud, the actions by the commission in rural Otero County had threatened to disenfranchise more than 7,300 voters in the politically conservative area of southern New Mexico.

The commissioners earlier had refused to certify the results, prompting the state's top election official to seek court intervention.

New Mexico's primary ballot included races at all levels — including Congress, governor, attorney general and a long list of local offices. Those races would not have been official until all counties are certified.

"We note that the Commission admitted that they did not have any facts to support not certifying the election results," said New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver after the vote. "It's unfortunate that we had to take action to make sure Otero County voters were not disenfranchised.


Associated Press writers Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Official in election standoff avoids prison in Capitol riot - By Michael Kunzelman And Jacques Billeaud Associated Press

An elected official who is a central figure in a New Mexico county's refusal to certify recent election results based on debunked conspiracy theories about voting machines avoided more jail time on Friday for joining the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol.

Couy Griffin, who founded the political group Cowboys for Trump, was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden gave Griffin credit for the 20 days he already served in jail after his arrest.

Federal prosecutors and a probation officer had both recommended a sentence of three months imprisonment. Griffin faced a maximum prison sentence of one year for his misdemeanor conviction.

After a trial without a jury, McFadden convicted Griffin in March of entering a restricted area outside the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, but acquitted him of a disorderly conduct charge. Griffin didn't go into the building itself and wasn't accused of engaging in any violence or destruction.

McFadden, who was nominated by President Donald Trump, also ordered Griffin to pay a $3,000 fine and $500 in restitution and perform 60 hours of community service.

The punishment for Griffin's role in the riot that delayed the certification of President Joe Biden's victory and sent lawmakers running for their lives comes the same day Griffin's Republican-dominated county commission faces a deadline to certify its election results.

The New Mexico secretary of state's office has asked the state attorney general's office to investigate the Otero County commission for possible violations of state election and government ethics laws.

During his sentencing, Griffin claimed the commission "found major discrepancies" in an election audit. He didn't elaborate but said, "That's all we want, is transparency and truth."

McFadden said he didn't factor that situation into his sentencing of Griffin. But the judge said public officials like Griffin must be held to a higher standard.

"We need our elected officials to support this country," McFadden said.

During the riot, Griffin shouted his unsubstantiated belief that the election was stolen from Trump, climbed a toppled fence and another barrier to access the Capitol steps and used a bullhorn to lead the throngs in prayer.

Griffin told McFadden that he only went to the Capitol to pray with others.

"My actions on Jan. 6 were the result of my faith," he said.

McFadden said the Capitol riot was a "national embarrassment" and called it "preposterous" for Griffin to claim that he didn't know he couldn't be on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.

"I'm not convinced, even a little bit," the judge said.

Griffin and his two other colleagues on the Otero County Commission in southern New Mexico voted against certifying results from the state's June 7 primary without raising specific concerns about discrepancies. The state Supreme Court has since ordered the conservative-leaning commission to certify the results before a statewide deadline Friday.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden. Election experts say the county's refusal to certify results of free and fair elections threatens the democratic process.

New Mexico's top prosecutor has told the commission to follow an order from the state Supreme Court to certify the results. A spokesperson for Attorney General Hector Balderas said the commission "must comply with the rule of law or we will take legal action."

The county commission voted last week to recount ballots from the statewide primary election by hand, remove state-mandated ballot drop boxes that facilitate absentee voting and discontinue the use of Dominion vote tabulation machines in the general election. Republican Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes says those instructions would break the law and she won't do any of it.

A day after the Capitol siege, Griffin made a social media video expressing his intention to return to Washington and talking about the prospect of holding a gun rights rally on the Capitol steps, saying "there's gonna be blood running out of that building."

"But at the end of the day, you mark my word, we will plant our flag on the desk of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Donald J. Trump if it boils down to it," Griffin said.

At least 21 riot defendants have pleaded guilty to a single count of the same misdemeanor charge that Griffin was convicted of by the judge. Judges handed down prison sentences ranging from 10 days to three months in 14 of those cases, according to an AP review of court records.

Prosecutors said Griffin has shown a lack of contrition for his actions during the attack. Griffin bragged at a county commission meeting about violating orders from police to stay out of the restricted area, has spread conspiracy theories about what happened on Jan. 6 and has made social media posts that questioned the conclusions of the judge overseeing his case, prosecutors said.

Defense attorney Nicholas Smith maintained Griffin is remorseful and believes he received a fair trial.

But the judge said Griffin's lack of contrition and apparent disdain for the criminal justice system is "very concerning."

Griffin is one of the few riot defendants who isn't accused of entering the Capitol building or engaging in any violent or destructive behavior.

More than 800 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot. Over 300 of them have pleaded guilty and nearly 200 have been sentenced.


Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Associated Press reporter Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

US adds $103M for wildfire hazards and land rehabilitation - By Keith Ridler Associated Press

The U.S. is adding $103 million this year for wildfire risk reduction and burned-area rehabilitation throughout the country as well as establishing an interagency wildland firefighter health and well-being program, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Friday.

Haaland made the announcement following a briefing on this year's wildfire season at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates the nation's wildland firefighting efforts.

The U.S. is having one of its worst starts to the wildfire season with more than 30,000 wildfires that have scorched 4,600 square miles . That's well above the 10-year average for the same period, about 23,500 wildfires and 1,800 square miles burned.

About $80 million will be used to speed up work removing potential wildfire hazards on more than 3,000 square miles of Interior Department lands, a 30% increase over last year. Another $20 million will be used to bolster post-wildfire landscape recovery.

The money is coming from the $1 trillion infrastructure deal President Joe Biden signed late last year.

"As wildfire seasons become longer, more intense and more dangerous, President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is bringing much-needed support to communities across the country to increase the resilience of lands and better support federal wildland firefighters," Haaland said.

The firefighter well-being program that includes the Forest Service will address physical and mental health needs for seasonal and year-round wildland firefighters, and will include post-traumatic stress disorder care. The fire center in recent years has started making efforts to encourage firefighters to seek mental health help after an increase in wildland firefighter suicides.

"Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a significant toll on their overall health and well-being, as well as on those who love them," Haaland said. "Standing up a targeted interagency effort to provide trauma-informed mental health care is critical."

The Interior Department's program will establish year-round prevention and mental-health training for wildland firefighters. The Interior Department's Office of Wildland Fire will help create a new system for trauma support services that emphasizes early intervention.

About $3 million will be used for climate-related research that includes landscape resiliency, prescribed fire, carbon storage and greenhouse gas and smoke emissions.

Some of the money will be used to continue developing a wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool that's being developed by the Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. That tool could help identify high-risk areas and make them a priority for treatment.

"We work with fire years now — it's no longer a fire season," said Jeff Rupert, the Interior Department's director of the Office of Wildland Fire, who took part in Friday's announcement. "That means that we have to do the hard work of reducing fire risk and recovering after fires at the same time that we're responding to fires."

With the latest financial support, "we're investing in all of these phases," he said.

Haaland also visited the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise, where scientists are working to better understand the sagebrush steppe in the U.S. West that has been plagued with giant wildfires in recent decades as invasive species, notably cheatgrass, have moved in. Scientists want to make the areas more resistant to wildfires and help them recover.

"The science is ongoing," Haaland said. "I want you to know that all of us — all of the departments, the bureaus, the offices at the Department of the Interior, of which the USGS is one — we're all working together to make sure that the science compliments the work that the firefighters are doing."

Wildfire seasons have become increasingly longer as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms.

"One thing is profoundly clear," Haaland said. "Climate change will continue to make fires in the West larger, and we must continue to invest in conservation of our ecosystem. Nature is our greatest ally in our fight against climate change."

AG to probe of Chaves County fatal deputy-involved shooting - Associated Press

The New Mexico Attorney General's office is taking over the investigation into the shooting death of a suspect by Chaves County deputies.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement Friday that District Attorney Dianna Luce asked for the review because of a conflict of interest in her office.

Luce did not give details about the conflict in a letter written Wednesday to Balderas.

Deputies were called to a dairy in southern Chaves County on March 22 about a man behaving erratically. According to witnesses, 34-year-old David Aguilera was striking tractors with a pipe and trying to steal them.

The two deputies tried subduing him with a taser several times. They fought with Aguilera and were able to put handcuffs on him.

Police body camera footage shows Aguilera in the backseat of a patrol vehicle resisting being handcuffed. He is then seen slipping out of the car and running. But then he jumps into the vehicle's driver seat.

Deputies can be heard cursing at him and ordering him to get out of the car. Aguilera apologizes but refuses to get out of the car. A deputy threatens to shoot him and opens fire when the vehicle appears to roll forward.

Aguilera died from his wounds.

Roswell Police Department and New Mexico State Police conducted an initial investigation.

Deadline looms as election crisis in New Mexico intensifies - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press

A standoff between a Republican-dominated county commission and New Mexico's Democratic secretary of state over the commission's conspiracy-fueled refusal to certify election results comes to a head Friday, the state's certification deadline.

The showdown is providing a stark example of the chaos that election experts have warned about as those who promote the lie that former President Donald Trump was cheated out of reelection seek to populate election offices across the country and the usually low-profile boards that certify the results.

The governing commission in Otero County refused to certify the local results of the state's June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with the equipment, even though it has identified no problems with the Dominion systems used by the county to tally paper ballots.

New Mexico's top prosecutor told the commission to follow an order from the state Supreme Court to certify the results. A spokesperson for Attorney General Hector Balderas said the Otero County commission in southern New Mexico "must comply with the rule of law or we will take legal action."

The secretary of state's office had asked the attorney general to investigate the commission for possible violations of state election and government ethics laws, which can be felonies if the action is willful and result in removal from office.

At least one of the three county commissioners was unfazed. Commissioner Couy Griffin told CNN that he was not planning to vote for certification.

"Why have a commission if we just get overridden by the court system?" he said.

It was not immediately clear what would happen if the county refuses to certify its results, a typically ministerial duty but one that has drawn the spotlight since Trump tried to pressure some certification boards in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

The developments in New Mexico can be traced to far-right conspiracy theories over voting machines that have spread across the country over the past two years. Various Trump allies have claimed that Dominion voting systems had somehow been manipulated as part of an elaborate scheme to steal the election, which President Joe Biden won.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election.

Dominion has filed several defamation lawsuits, including against Fox News, and in a statement earlier this week said the action by the Otero County commissioners was "yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public's faith in elections."

Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes, a Republican in her fourth term as the county's lead elections administrator, told The Associated Press that the June 7 primary was conducted without problems. Machine tallies at 16 voting centers each matched the number of ballots that were handed out.

"The primary went off without a hitch," she said. "It was a great election."

Trump won nearly 62% of the 2020 vote in Otero County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1. A Democrat has not won a seat on the county commission since 1994.

Defiance of the federal government and its oversight of public lands are staples of politics in the largely rural county, which spans an area three times the size of Delaware and includes a portion of the White Sands Missile Range, site of the first atomic bomb test.

Otero and other New Mexico counties face a midnight deadline to certify their election results.

So far, all but six of the state's 33 counties have certified their results, and no other county officials have said publicly that they intend to vote against certification.

In politically conservative Torrance County, commissioners scheduled discussions for Friday about "election integrity" and the potential for litigation, alongside a vote on whether to certify the primary election results.

Otero County Attorney Roy Nichols said the commission there has scheduled an emergency meeting ahead of the deadline. He said he could not speak for the commissioners and that it's unclear whether they will vote to certify the results. Two of the three commissioners need to vote in favor of the certification.

That's potentially important because it's not clear whether Griffin will even be in New Mexico to attend the meeting. He also is scheduled on Friday to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., after being convicted of entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds — though not the building — during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

State election officials advised the sentencing judge of Griffin's refusal to certify primary election results in New Mexico.

New Mexico reaches $32M settlement over 2015 mine spill - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico and the U.S. government have reached a $32 million settlement over a 2015 mine spill that polluted rivers in three western states.

Similar environmental accidents will be intolerable in the future as the region grapples with shrinking water supplies amid drought and climate change, the governor said Thursday.

"Every drop is precious," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a news conference. "If we don't have that water, we aren't growing our own food."

The spill released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, sending a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals south to New Mexico, through the Navajo Nation and into Utah through the San Juan and Animas rivers.

Water utilities were forced to scramble and shut down intake valves while farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the contaminants moved downstream.

The New Mexico settlement marks just the latest reached over the past year. Colorado and the Navajo Nation also have inked multimillion-dollar agreements to settle claims and sort out responsibility for continued cleanup at the Superfund site that was established following the spill.

Under the New Mexico agreement, the federal government will make cash payments for response costs, environmental restoration and efforts to mitigate the negative perceptions about the area's rivers following the spill. Money also will go toward water quality monitoring and cleanup activities.

Lujan Grisham called the settlement a turning point for communities in the region.

"While the San Juan and Animas rivers have healed from the spill, it's time for communities like Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec to do the same," she said in a statement, saying the money is deserved in light of the federal government's role in the disaster.

The state also received $11 million in damages from the mining companies, and the case against the federal contractors involved is pending.

On Aug. 5, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency contractors attempting cleanup work caused the release of the toxic wastewater. The plume eventually reached Lake Powell in Utah.

Although the rivers are now safe for irrigation and other uses, state and local officials have said the stigma associated with the event has had lasting effects on the region's economy.

The Navajo Nation finalized a $31 million settlement with the federal government this week. The tribe said the plume had traveled through an estimated 200 miles of the San Juan River, which it considers sacred.

Top Navajo officials traveled to the mine site and shared photos and video of the wastewater rushing downstream on social media.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the tribe had pledged to hold accountable all those who caused or contributed to the spill. He added that he was grateful the federal government acknowledged the devastation that it caused.

While New Mexico and the Navajo Nation pursued separate lawsuits, the cases were consolidated and state officials said Thursday that remediation and restoration work will be coordinated.

State officials said a restoration plan will be developed with public input.

Life prison term upheld for New Mexico man who killed family - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday has upheld the life prison sentence of a man who was convicted of fatally shooting his parents and three younger siblings when he was a teenager.

In a dispositional order Thursday, the state's high court rejected arguments by Nehemiah Griego that his sentence was unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment because it denied him an opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation.

Griego was 15 at the time of the 2013 killings at his family's home in Albuquerque.

He was convicted of intentional child abuse resulting in death and two concurrent seven-year sentences for second-degree murder for his parent's deaths.

Griego was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences with the possibility of parole after serving 30 years.

A district court judge found Griego not amendable to treatment as a juvenile and in 2019 sentenced him as an adult to the state prison system.

Now 25, Greigo will be eligible for parole when he's 52.

In his appeal, Griego also argued his convictions should be overturned because his trial attorney was ineffective.

The court order said Griego "merely surmises his treatment will be inadequate" in prison and he "failed to establish that he does not have a 'meaningful opportunity for release' after serving" his sentence.

Griego's legal team is meeting to determine the most appropriate next step in his case.

"It is easy to give up on children who commit terrible crimes and write them off as hopeless. But the truth is that these crimes are rooted in trauma and mental illness and many of the children involved can and will eventually be rehabilitated," said Allison Jaramillo, Griego's attorney.

"Instead of offering this chance for Nehemiah by finding his three life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court's decision means that he will spend his life in prison for crimes he committed as a child. New Mexico should protect children from the cruel fate Nehemiah is now facing, not give up on them," Jaramillo added.

Warm, dry, breezy weather to challenge fire crews in Arizona - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Fire crews battling a pair of wildfires in northern Arizona were expecting some growth Thursday because of warm, dry and breezy conditions, but rain that could help quell the blazes is on its way.

Both blazes were moving through grass, brush and pine trees on the northern outskirts of Flagstaff, a mountainous city that's home to Northern Arizona University and the observatory where Pluto was discovered. It's also a popular respite from the sweltering heat in the low deserts, including Phoenix.

The larger fire has burned more than 38 square miles, destroying one home and another structure. It was 27% contained Thursday, down slightly from a day earlier because of burnout operations, fire information officer Mike Reichling said.

The blaze has overlapped some of the footprint of a wildfire that started on Easter Sunday and destroyed 30 homes and other structures while consuming about 30 square miles of forest, chaparral and grassland.

A smaller fire in northern Arizona has burned more than 8 square miles and was 11% contained.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday declared a state of emergency because of the fires and allocated $200,000 to the state emergency management department to help respond and recover from the blazes. This allows the state forester and other agencies to provide other assistance as needed and provide disaster relief.

"For a community still recovering from the path of the Tunnel Fire in April, this new blaze is a reminder for all Arizonans to be vigilant and safe this wildfire season," Ducey said.

The forecast in the Flagstaff area calls for a chance of showers and thunderstorms starting Friday and throughout the weekend, which could help suppress the wildfires. Flooding and dry lightning that could spark new blazes also are concerns.

Some evacuation orders were still in place because of the wildfires, including for the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.

Parts of the Coconino and Kaibab national forests will be closed starting Friday, including popular trails and camping areas, because of the wildfire danger. Forest officials said more extensive or even full forest closures could come if conditions worsen. Campfires aren't allowed anywhere in the forests under current restrictions.

Authorities have reopened U.S. Route 89, the primary route between northern Arizona and the Navajo Nation up into Utah. Drivers also use it to get to the east rim of the Grand Canyon.

Tall, blackened trees lined the highway, some of which fell over from the fierce winds that fueled the wildfire in the first couple of days, Reichling said.

"It wasn't scorched earth, but it was burnt," Reichling said. "It cleaned up the forest on the understory, so hopefully a lot of those trees will bounce back."

Nationwide, three dozen active large wildfires have burned 2,186 square miles — much of it in the U.S. Southwest. New Mexico's two largest fires have now charred more than 1,027 square miles of tinder-dry forests in northern and southern parts of the state. Nearly 7,200 wildland firefighters and support personnel and working the blazes.

Multiple states had early starts to the wildfire season this spring. Climate change and an enduring drought have fanned the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.