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MON: Navajo Nation authorized to file benefit claims for vets, + More

The Department of Veterans Affairs Building on Vermont Avenue in Washington, DC.

Navajo Nation authorized to file benefit claims for veterans - By Noel Lyn Smith, Farmington Daily Times

The Navajo Nation Veterans Administration was formally recognized by the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for being the first tribal nation program to receive accreditation to help veterans submit federal benefits claims directly to the VA.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough recognized the tribal government program's status during a visit to Gallup on June 28, the Farmington Daily Times reported.

"We've been negotiating this with President Nez and his team. They are the first tribe to take up this new authority," McDonough said. "I'm thrilled that we can announce that today and as importantly, put it into action."

He added that this is part of the VA's work to make sure tribal nations have a seat at the table, this includes having veteran service officers on tribal lands who can submit veterans' benefits claims to the VA.

McDonough's visit came a day after it was announced that a group of bipartisan senators ended the review process on recommendations by the VA to close outpatient clinics in several states, including those in Gallup, Española, Las Vegas and Raton.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez noted that the accreditation achieved by the tribal government's VA will greatly help Navajo veterans, many who face difficulties in traveling to VA centers outside the tribal land.

"Today marks a milestone with our partnership with the VA also our Navajo Nation VA," Nez said.

Last month, Nez's office announced that the Navajo Nation VA met the criteria and standards to be accredited through the federal VA's Tribal Representation Expansion Project.

There are now five Navajo Nation VA staff members accredited under the project and can process federal benefits claims for veterans, according to a release from Nez's office.

Navajo Nation VA Director James Zwierlein told the Daily Times that the employees work in the tribe's VA offices in Shiprock, Crownpoint, Tsé Bonito, Chinle and Tuba City.

A sixth person is being trained to work in the Fort Defiance office, he added.

The news release stated the staff members have taken in and submitted 83 claims into the federal VA system since May 2.

In remarks at the June 28 event, Zwierlein said these claims were filed on behalf of Navajo veterans but there are more veterans, including non-Navajo and non-Native American, in line for claims assistance.

McDonough also participated in a town hall with Nez, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M. at the University of New Mexico campus in Gallup.

According to Nez's office, the group heard from veterans, members of the Navajo Nation Veterans Advisory Council and state and tribal leaders about health care, benefits claims and the need for expansive care for traditional healing and mental health services.

Fort Sill Apache present plans for New Mexico casino - By Algernon D'ammassa Las Cruces Sun-News

A legal representative of the Fort Sill Apache tribe seemed pleasantly surprised by the prevailing mood at a public scoping meeting for a proposed gaming facility and other developments on a patch of land in Luna County.

"I applaud you folks here today," the tribe's attorney, Phillip Thompson, said during the recent meeting. "I've been to some rancorous meetings about casinos in California and other parts of the country where, you know, we were looking for the back exit."

No one spoke in opposition to the project at a meeting soliciting community input, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. Those who came to the microphone had questions about the project and potential economic development, and one man even offered business advice for the future casino.

Luna County stood at 11.5% official unemployment in May and typically sees double-digit rates, while county and city populations have dwindled in recent years.

The tribe currently operates Apache Homelands, a restaurant, cigarette shop and convenience store with a museum next to a pecan orchard alongside Interstate 10 in Akela, 20 miles east of Deming.

Construction has been underway since last fall on an expanded retail facility that will offer shower and laundry facilities, electric vehicle charging stations and expanded retail operations. The project, branded Chiricahua Plaza, is nearly 10,000 square feet in size and is anticipated to be completed late in 2022.

A wastewater treatment plant designed to recycle greywater for irrigation and non-drinking uses is also under construction.

Last week's event was a scoping meeting at which Thompson, alongside tribe chairwoman Lori Gooday Ware and project manager Brady Jones, presented plans for future developments and solicited public input as part of an approval process for gaming facilities that requires sign-offs from the U.S. interior secretary and New Mexico's governor.

The proposed developments include a gaming facility within the existing building that will feature up to 100 Class II slot machines, parking facilities that will accommodate RVs and trucks, enhanced tribal offices and cultural facilities.

The tribe projects the Akela project will create more than 160 jobs in the construction phase, averaging $46,000 in yearly wages and nearly $25 million in economic activity. After that, it anticipates 60 operational jobs at $34,100 in average wages, and to stimulate the economy by $16.4 million with $1.1 million in tax revenue.

The tribe has also studied potential impacts for a potential hotel and other attractions at the location.

The project seeks to establish an economic base for the small, federally recognized tribe descended from Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache peoples taken as prisoners of war and removed from the southwest to Florida, Alabama and eventually Oklahoma.

Fort Sill Apache, named for the location of their captivity, was recognized by the United States in 1976 and granted approval of a reservation in New Mexico in 2011 after long and complex litigation. Thompson said the tribe is negotiating a land swap with New Mexico, exchanging land it owns in Albuquerque for land adjacent to the Akela development.

Efforts to establish gaming facilities at Akela have also been subject to challenges from the National Indian Gaming Commission, the state and federal governments. Among the issues raised is that the tribe's government is based in Oklahoma and had few economic links to New Mexico.

Thompson addressed that at the beginning of his presentation, explaining that the tribe is the recognized legal successor for Apache groups that lived in southwest and northern New Mexico and part of Arizona, before their removal by the United States after the bands' surrender in 1886. Thompson said the tribe aimed to establish their homelands once more in New Mexico and provide its citizens with community and economic opportunity.

Rebecca Lescombes, a Libertarian candidate for the Luna County Board of Commissioners, asked the representatives how many of the jobs would be designated for tribal members versus local residents as well as housing needs.

Jones, the project manager, said the Fort Sill Apache is "very small" and employs workers from outside the tribe.

The public comment period ends July 27.

Crews douse fire in abandoned building near the ABQ BioPark - Associated Press

A fire burning in an abandoned building near the Albuquerque Biological Park was brought under control Sunday and authorities said its cause wasn't immediately known.

City fire department crews were called to the scene about 6 a.m. Sunday and reported seeing a large plume of smoke coming from a building.

Fire officials say there were no injuries but the building's structural integrity is compromised as it has caught fire before.

The BioPark is an environmental museum that contains four separate facilities — a 64-acre zoo, a 36-acre botanic garden, an aquarium and a fishing lake/picnic area.

NM legal aid attorney: FEMA system ‘broken,’ but don’t give up – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

A lawyer overseeing a slew of damage claims from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s aid process needs an overhaul.

Michelle Garcia, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, encouraged those seeking FEMA relief to reach out for legal help to a coalition of lawyers who are helping with claims.

FEMA is providing an array of disaster aid checks for those who lost their homes or property, or incurred emergency expenses following the biggest fire in recorded New Mexico state history, one that resulted from escaped prescribed burns crews started in the Santa Fe National Forest. The biggest payments for destroyed homes can reach up to $37,500 and be as small as $500 or smaller for emergency expenses.

At last count, the agency had denied 30% of applications from New Mexicans who sought damages, though people can still appeal. The agency had provided more than $3.6 million to 1,061 applicants as of Tuesday — which works out to about $3,400 apiece.

The agency has come under criticism for its practice of sending automated denial letters to individuals and families who seek assistance. Denials often happen because applicants can’t immediately provide proof of ownership or other documents. The agency has also issued rejections based on incorrect information it gathered.

In one case detailed by Source New Mexico this week, an application for a home destroyed by the fire in Las Dispensas was denied because the home was deemed “safe to occupy,” In that case, the agency was also using a different address than the one on the deed, and it erroneously determined the house was a rental, according to documents and interviews.

Garcia said 3% of applicants have reached out to the FEMA legal assistance hotline, which routes callers to Legal Aid, the State Bar Association and the NM Young Lawyers Association. Three percent amounts to about 80 people, according to the latest application estimates from FEMA.

Garcia said she regularly encounters cases where FEMA is denying applicants too quickly, and she’s not surprised to read about the agency getting things wrong.

“We’re dealing with a bit of a broken system where there’s a default of, ‘Well, we know it’s bad. So go ahead and apply and then deal with it in the appeal process,’” she said. “It’s almost like people are supposed to be OK with the system not working at the application stage… That’s really frustrating, beyond frustrating, for people that need help with the situation.”

Those affected by the fire have until Aug. 4 to apply, according to New Mexico Legal Aid. The previous deadline was July 5, but the agency extended it.

Garcia urged those harmed by the disaster to call the hotline and speak to lawyers working on their behalf, even if they think their case is straightforward or if they think they don’t qualify.

“Talk to somebody. We’re happy to help,” she said. “And the main takeaway is people should apply even if they’re not sure they’re going to qualify, even if they don’t have all the paperwork, even if they’re not 100% on what they might need. Just get the application started.”

Applications get started with FEMA but get routed in various directions, like to the Small Business Association if an applicant doesn’t qualify for FEMA aid but can receive a low interest loan for help rebuilding.

In the case of small farmers, of which there are many in northern New Mexico, the process is “arcane,” Garcia said.

A farmer with a small operation would begin at FEMA, which would refer it to the SBA, Garcia said. But the SBA doesn’t offer loans for farmers, so that farmer would be sent to the Farm Services Agency for aid.

“You would have to go through three different agencies to even get an answer on who can help you,” Garcia said. “And that’s hard. I don’t know another word for it. It’s really hard.”

FEMA has said since it opened up shop in the burn scar that applicants should do their best to meet the requirements of the program and appeal if they are denied.

“Take the money that FEMA gives and start rebuilding, and then see what comes after,” Carmen Rodriguez Diaz, a FEMA spokesperson, told Source New Mexico earlier this month. 

Democratic governors call on Biden to use federal facilities for abortion access - Jacob Fischler, States Newsroom via Source New Mexico 

A group of Democratic governors urged President Joe Biden on Friday to use federal facilities to provide access to abortions, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade last week.

In a video conference with nine governors, including Kate Brown of Oregon, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Jared Polis of Colorado, Biden called the court’s ruling “tragic” and said he shared “the public outrage” about it. He repeated pledges to use the federal government to continue abortion access where it still exists, and called for electing more Democrats to expand protections.

Lujan Grisham and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged Biden to use federal facilities, such as Veterans Affairs hospitals, military bases and Indian Health Service clinics to offer abortion access.

“We ask that you consider your ability to use federal facilities,” Hochul said, including “veterans hospitals, military bases and other places where the federal government controls the jurisdiction in some of the states that are hostile to women’s rights and make sure that those services are available to other women.”

Lujan Grisham added that Native nations in her state have told her they’d allow abortion services at IHS facilities.

“That may be yet another vehicle that we could expand that would protect women and particularly minority populations all across the country,” she said.

Some congressional Democrats have also urged Biden to allow abortion clinics to operate on federal lands in states that restrict access to the procedure.

Asked about that possibility Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said all options are on the table.

As he did the day of the ruling, Biden said the federal government would protect the right to cross state lines in pursuit of an abortion and ensure that approved medications would remain available.

And he repeated a position he took Thursday that the Senate should make an exception to the filibuster, a rule requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation, to codify the protections that had been in place under Roe v. Wade.

Two Democrats in the evenly split U.S. Senate have said they oppose changing the filibuster, meaning Democrats would have to gain new seats in November’s midterm elections for a chance to pass a federal abortion bill, he said.

New Mexico reacts to Supreme Court decision flanked by states poised to outlaw abortion

Biden sharpened campaign-style lines urging voters to send more Democrats who favor abortion rights to Congress, saying Republicans posed a threat to abortion access nationwide.

“We’re going to be in a situation where the Republicans are going to pass a nationwide prohibition, consistent with what the Supreme Court ruled,” he said. “So there’s a lot at stake here.”

Cooper, the head of the national campaign group Democratic Governors Association, said he would “hold the line” against any efforts by the Republican Legislature to restrict abortion access in his state. Cooper added that more Democratic state lawmakers would help him sustain vetoes.

The meeting came a week after the court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that a right to an abortion is not guaranteed in the Constitution.

The ruling allowed each state to set its own abortion laws, almost immediately creating a patchwork of access to the procedure throughout the country.

“For now at least, where you live is going to determine your rights,” Cooper said. “It’s up to the states to determine whether women can get reproductive health care.”

But while each state can now set its own laws on abortion access, even states that haven’t altered their approach after the court’s ruling are being affected, Cooper said. As other southeastern states ban or restrict access, Planned Parenthood clinics in the Tar Heel State expect an additional 10,000 patients from out of state in the next year, he said.

About 20 minutes of the meeting was open to the press and live streamed. The conversation appeared set to continue after press access ended, with Biden asking the governors to consider what they would do in his position.

Abortion ruling puts spotlight on gerrymandered legislatures - By David A. Lieb Associated Press

In overturning a half-century of nationwide legal protection for abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roe v. Wade had been wrongly decided and that it was time to "return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives" in the states.

Whether those elected officials are truly representative of the people is a matter of debate, thanks to another high court decision that has enabled control of state legislatures to be skewed to the right or left.

In June 2019, three years before its momentous abortion ruling, the Supreme Court decided that it has no role in restraining partisan gerrymandering, in which Republicans or Democrats manipulate the boundaries of voting districts to give their candidates an edge.

The result is that many legislatures are more heavily partisan than the state's population as a whole. Gerrymandering again flourished as politicians used the 2020 census data to redraw districts that could benefit their party both for this year's elections and the next decade.

In some swing states with Republican-led legislatures, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, "arguably gerrymandering really is the primary reason that abortion is likely to be illegal," said Chris Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University who analyzes redistricting data.

Meanwhile, "in states where Democrats have gerrymandered, it's going to help probably make abortion laws more liberal than people would like," he added.

A majority of Americans support abortion access in general, though many say there should be some restrictions, according to public opinion polls.

States have sometimes been viewed as laboratories for democracy — institutions most closely connected to the people where public policies are tested, take root and potentially spread.

Writing for the Supreme Court's majority in its June 24 abortion decision, Justice Samuel Alito noted that 30 states had prohibited abortion when the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling "short-circuited the democratic process," usurped lawmakers and imposed abortion rights nationwide.

"Our decision returns the issue of abortion to those legislative bodies, and it allows women on both sides of the abortion issue to seek to affect the legislative process by influencing public opinion, lobbying legislators, voting, and running for office," Alito wrote.

Abortion already is an issue in Wisconsin's gubernatorial and legislative elections. A recent Wisconsin poll showed a majority supported legal abortion in most or all cases. But a fight is brewing over an 1849 state law — which had been unenforceable until Roe v. Wade was overruled — that bans abortion except to save the life of the woman.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is backing a court challenge to overturn the law, enacted just a year after Wisconsin gained statehood. He also called a special legislative session in June to repeal it. But the Republican-led Assembly and Senate adjourned in a matter of seconds without taking action.

Wisconsin's legislative chambers had one of the nation's strongest Republican advantages during the past decade and are projected to continue to do so under new districts in place for the 2022 elections, according to an analysis by PlanScore, a nonprofit that uses election data to rate the partisan tilt of legislative districts.

"Democracy is distorted in Wisconsin because of these maps," Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer said.

In 2018, Democrats won every major statewide office, including governor and attorney general, races where gerrymandering isn't in play. But they have not been able to overcome heavily gerrymandered state legislative districts since Republicans won control of the statehouse during the midterm elections in 2010.

"If we had a truly democratic system in Wisconsin, we would be in a different situation," she said. "We would be overturning this criminal abortion ban right now"

Republican state Rep. Donna Rozar, a former cardiac nurse who backs abortion restrictions, said gerrymandering shouldn't stop political parties from running good candidates to represent their districts. She expects a robust abortion debate during the campaign to carry into the 2023 legislative session.

"This is an issue that is so critical to come back to the states, because each state then can elect people that will represent their values." Rozar said.

The 2010 midterms, two years after former President Barack Obama was elected, were a pivot point for control of statehouses across the country. Coming into that election, Democrats fully controlled 27 state legislatures and Republicans 14, with the rest split. But sweeping GOP victories put the party in charge of redistricting in many states. By 2015, after two elections under the new maps, Republicans fully controlled 30 legislatures and Democrats just 11.

That Republican legislative advantage largely persisted through the 2020 elections, including in states that otherwise are narrowly divided between Democrats and Republicans, such as Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In New Mexico, it's Republicans who contend the Democratic-led Legislature has pushed beyond the will of many voters on abortion policies. The New Mexico House and Senate districts had a sizable pro-Democratic edge during the past decade that got even more pronounced after districts were redrawn based on the 2020 census, according to the PlanScore data.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation last year repealing a dormant 1969 law that banned most abortions. After Roe v. Wade was overruled, she signed an executive order making New Mexico a safe harbor for people seeking abortions. Unlike most states, New Mexico has no restrictions on late-term abortions.

"I don't think that the majority of New Mexicans support New Mexico's abortion policy at this time," Republican state Sen. Gay Kernan said. "New Mexico is the late-term abortion capital of the United States, basically."

The Republican nominee for governor, Mark Ronchetti, has proposed to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and when a woman's life is at risk. But the legislative proposal has been described as dead on arrival by Democratic state Senate Whip Linda Lopez.

Michigan could provide one of the biggest tests of representative government in the nation's new abortion battle.

Republicans drew Michigan legislative districts after the 2010 census and created such a sizable advantage for their party that it may have helped the GOP maintain control of the closely divided House, according to an Associated Press analysis. As in Wisconsin, Democrats in Michigan won the governor's race and every other major statewide office in 2018 but could not overcome legislative districts tilted toward Republicans.

The dynamics have changed for this year's elections. The GOP's edge was cut in half under new legislative districts drawn by a voter-approved citizens' redistricting commission, according to the PlanScore data. That could improve Democrats' chances of winning a chamber and influencing abortion policy.

Michigan's Republican gubernatorial challengers generally support a 1931 state law — temporarily placed on hold by a judge — that bans abortions unless a woman's health is at risk. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is running for reelection, wants to repeal that law.

Republican state Rep. Steve Carra said lawmakers are looking to replace it with "something that would be enforceable in the 21st century."

"It's more important to protect life than it is a woman's right to choose to take that life," said Carra, who leads a coalition of 321 lawmakers from 35 states that had urged the Supreme Court to return abortion policy to the states.

Unsure about their legislative prospects, abortion rights advocates are gathering signatures for a November ballot initiative that would create a state constitutional right to abortion, allowing its regulation only "after fetal viability."

"It's the best shot that we have at securing abortion access," Democratic state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky said. "I think if this is put in voters' hands, they will want to see this ballot measure succeed."

Attorneys for Trump in New Mexico confront new scrutiny - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Renewed efforts are underway to investigate and possibly discipline two attorneys that helped the Donald Trump campaign challenge New Mexico's 2020 presidential election results in the weeks prior to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

A group including former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez on Thursday asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and ensure an investigation in public view of the two attorneys who represented the Trump campaign for possible violations of standards of professional conduct.

The complaint cites possible violations of conduct rules by New Mexico-based attorney Mark J. Caruso and another attorney, Michael Smith, who lists a Texas address and a Washington law license.

The state's chief disciplinary counsel and disciplinary board chairman previously determined in confidential proceedings that there was no violation of rules against frivolous litigation by Caruso and Smith.

Caruso said by email that he was confident the Supreme Court will stand behind the previous finds, describing the accusations as "political claims by N.M. Democrat attorneys."

The new complaint against the attorneys highlights recent testimony in the congressional hearings about Jan. 6, including the role of Santa Fe-based lawyer John Eastman as a chief architect of plans after the 2020 election to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence into rejecting the electoral college results. The California State Bar is investigating whether Eastman violated that state's law and ethics rules for attorneys.

Now-President Joe Biden won the 2020 vote in New Mexico by about 11 percentage points or nearly 100,000 ballots. But the Trump campaign still filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque that sought to invalidate absentee ballots cast at drop boxes and halt the certification of New Mexico's presidential electors.

New Mexico is among seven states where fake electors submitted false Electoral College certificates that declared Trump the true winner of the 2020 election. The new complaint says Caruso and Smith might have encouraged the fake electors.

"The relief that Mr. Caruso and Mr. Smith requested was tantamount to asking the federal court to overturn the election in New Mexico, despite a landslide victory for President Biden," says the lawsuit filed by Chavez and five other New Mexico attorneys. "Given the gravity of possible attorney involvement in a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, the (New Mexico) Supreme Court, the Bar and the electorate all need any decision, either enforcing discipline or exonerating Mr. Caruso and Mr. Smith, to demonstrate deliberation and thoroughness, in a non-confidential and public manner."

New Mexico's office of the disciplinary counsel in March wrote that "Caruso and Smith's actions may warrant public hearings in some other forum, but not due to their actions within the confines of the rules of professional conduct."

A New York appeals court last year suspended the law license of Rudy Giuliani, the point man for pushing Trump's false claims about the 2020 election. The court said Giuliani's bid to discredit the election was so egregious that he poses "an immediate threat" to the public.

The Texas bar association is seeking to punish state Attorney General Ken Paxton, citing professional misconduct in his failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on bogus claims of fraud.

2 men facing charges after car crash kills 3 in New Mexico - Associated Press

Authorities say two men are facing charges after a car crash in the small northern New

Two men are facing charges after a car crash in the small northern New Mexico town of Wagon Mound left a woman and two small children dead.

New Mexico State Police said 22-year-old Jesse Joel Blanco allegedly was speeding on State Road 120 around 10:45 p.m. Friday when the vehicle he was driving struck a car that was backing out of a driveway.

The driver of that vehicle — 42-year-old Irene Romero — was declared dead at the scene of the collision along with her 9-year-old niece and 4-year-old granddaughter, police said.

Romero's 21-year-old daughter was hospitalized with injuries not considered life threatening.

They said Blanco was booked into the San Miguel County Detention Center on suspicion of three counts of vehicular homicide while driving intoxicated, aggravated DWI causing great bodily harm, speeding and reckless driving.

Blanco's passenger — 20-year-old Dominc Armijo — is facing charges of tampering with evidence for allegedly trying to hide alcohol containers after the crash, police said.

Both Blanco and Armijo are Wagon Mound residents. It was unclear Sunday if either man has a lawyer yet.

Online court records show that Blanco doesn't have a criminal history in New Mexico, but he has been cited twice before for speeding.