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WED: No results for NM House races change as recounts are certified, + More

The State Canvassing Board, including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, to certify the state's midterm election results.
Courtesy of the Secretary of State's Office
The State Canvassing Board, including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, to certify the state's midterm election results.

Recounts for NM House seats certified, no results changeBy Nash Jones, KUNM

New Mexico’s 2022 election is officially over after the state Canvassing Board certified the results of two automatic recounts Wednesday.

After certifying the rest of the results Nov. 29, the board ordered recounts in districts 32 and 68 because the margin of victory was so slim, with less than 50 votes separating the candidates in both races.

The recounts, held last week at the county level, did not change the results of either race.

Spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office Alex Curtas says it’s “a testament to the accuracy and integrity of New Mexico’s vote counting process” that no automatic recount — since they were established in 2008 — has changed an election result.

The count in southwest New Mexico’s district 32 remained identical tothe original, with Republican Jennifer Jones maintaining a 46 vote lead over Democratic incumbent Candie Sweetser. Sweetser is now officiallyone of only two incumbents to lose her House seat this election. The other was Republican Jane Powdrell-Culbert.

Democratic Representative-elect Charlotte Little’s lead over Republican candidate Robert Moss in the Albuquerque-area district 68 shrunk by one vote in the recount.

The State Canvassing Board includes Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon who was absent from the recount certification meeting, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Head of New Mexico prisons says current level of oversight ‘more than enough’ - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

A proposal in the upcoming legislative session could result in more scrutiny of New Mexico’s prisons, but the person in charge of the prison system said this week that the oversight already in place is more than enough.

Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) asked New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero whether there is opportunity for more supervision of the state’s prison system.

“In my opinion, no,” Lucero responded during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee on Monday. “We have a lot of oversight bodies that we’re already part of.”

The department is an executive agency under the management of the governor, Tafoya Lucero said.

“I believe that is more than enough,” she said.

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, and Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D-Mesilla) last week talked with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 7 about the need for more diligent oversight of the department managing the state’s prison systems.

“At best, our prison systems are opaque. And at worst, they’re secretive,” Jones said.

Cadena and Jones will champion a proposal in the upcoming session to bring public accountability and transparency to the department which, for example, is facing allegations of sexual humiliation and abuse of incarcerated people.

They want support to set up a New Mexico Corrections Oversight Commission to better address issues with the department.

But Tafoya Lucero said on Monday in addition to the already existing administration by the governor, the department is accredited by the American Correctional Association, a nonprofit organization that has accredited facilities shown to hold people in appalling conditions.

Tafoya Lucero added the department has “a lot of oversight” through legislation and from the Legislative Finance Committee, though she did not offer specifics. She said the department has “a very robust” Constituent Services Office.

Rep. Small seemed to disagree.

“From my experience coming from southern New Mexico, there are, it seems to me, opportunities for certainly greater engagement, likely greater oversight,” he said, “and hopefully, a shared sort of reaching of the goals that we share, which is fundamentally to keep our communities safe.”

‘We need someone to stand up for us’: NM fails patients hounded by medical debt collectors - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

As a father of two lay in bed with excruciating pain in his back, he wasn’t sure where it came from, but he felt like he had nowhere to take it.

His girlfriend and mother told him he needed to go to the hospital and see a doctor.

“I can’t,” he told them. “I don’t have insurance.”

But they insisted, and he was driven to the emergency room at Mountain View Regional Medical Center down the street from his house in Las Cruces in October 2021. He was there for four hours, he said, got some pain medication, and was sent home.

More than a year later, a postal worker came to his door telling him he needed to show his identification and sign for a package. Inside was court paperwork from the hospital, suing him for not paying the bill, which Mountain View said totaled over $4,000.

“I just went into panic mode,” he said. “I didn’t know they could do this. They didn’t even call me and say, ‘Hey, make a payment.’ Nothing.”

The hospital disputes this in court filings, and attorneys say before the lawsuit was filed, Mountain View’s collection agency sent him letters and called him.

The patient declined to be named because of an ongoing lawsuit, and to protect his privacy and safety.

His income of about $300 per week as a plumber, according to court records, should have qualified him for protection from this lawsuit under a New Mexico law passed in 2021 meant to protect people with low incomes from being sued or facing aggressive collection agencies over medical debt.

But the state is doing little to enforce its new law, and two patient-led lawsuits allege health care companies keep suing people anyway.

The plumber said he was convinced that if he did not comply with the Las Cruces hospital’s demands, and the case reached a judgment, his credit would be ruined. The hospital is calling on the court to force him to pay it, plus interest.

So he sold his truck — the only thing he owned of any value, he said — to prepare for potentially having to pay a judgment.

“He sold this asset to prepare for what he saw as an inevitability,” said Nicolas Cordova, health care director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Other clients divert money their family needs for housing, clothes and fuel when faced with these lawsuits, Cordova said.

“That just shows the irreparable damage these kinds of unlawful lawsuits can impose on people and families who should not have been subjected to those lawsuits at all,” Cordova said.

Everyone should be able to access medical care they need without the fear of devastating medical debt, Cordova said.


Unpaid medical bills have become big business, with hospitals selling batches of debts to collection agencies for millions at a go.

Nearly one out of every five people in New Mexico have medical debt sold to collection agencies.

Over 200,000 people in the state do not have health insurance. For those folks, Cordova said, one of two things usually happens: You either avoid health care when you need it, or if you get health care, you might be charged unfair amounts, leaving you with a stack of unaffordable bills.

Hospitals in New Mexico are suing hundreds of patients each year to collect. These lawsuits can result in hospitals garnishing people’s wages, reporting adverse information to someone’s creditors, or even forcing them to potentially sell their assets, diverting money from their basic needs, Cordova said. All for a case they should not have been subjected to in the first place.

Faced with that dire situation, the New Mexico Legislature passed the Patients’ Debt Collection Protection Act, which puts the legal burden on hospitals and other health care companies to first check someone’s income to see if they are “indigent” before suing them or sending collectors their way.

If you’re being sued over medical debt, the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance published the forms needed to prove that someone has a low income in January 2022.

“The hospital knows this is the law, and it has been in effect since 2021,” Cordova said. “And yet they’re relying on everyday New Mexicans not understanding their rights.”

Since the law went into effect in July 2021, Mountain View has unlawfully sued over 260 patients without considering their income, according to a class action lawsuit.

The state Human Services Department told hospitals in November 2021 to comply with the law, they must first look at income before billing someone for an emergency or medically necessary care. The state issued rules putting the law into practice a month later.


It’s hard enough already not having enough money to go to the doctor, the Las Cruces plumber said, but it’s even worse to be sued for seeing one. The most frustrating part was not knowing who to call, he said, and he felt relief when he met Cordova.

“We need someone to stand up for us,” he said. “I feel bad for all the people that are still wondering what to do. It’s hard to find someone standing up for us.”

Cordova said the class action case against Mountain View has two goals: one, ensure the hospital follows the law, whether that means not filing lawsuits against patients with low incomes at all, or meeting the legal burden of looking into it first; and two, reverse any kind of downstream impacts of those unlawfully filed lawsuits.

It’s not just Mountain View. In a review of court records, the Center on Law and Poverty found more than 700 cases where hospitals or their collection agencies sued patients with low incomes in state courts across New Mexico, even after the law took effect.

Another separate class action lawsuit accuses the Credit Bureau of Farmington, on behalf of three health care companies in San Juan County, of filing “several hundred” debt collection lawsuits against low-income patients over the last four years.


Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor “expects all state laws to be followed and adhered to, including legislation she was proud to sign that is intended to protect low-income New Mexicans.”

“The executive is not a law enforcement body, and we wouldn’t be able to comment on a litigation matter that does not involve our office,” Meyers Sackett said in an emailed statement on Dec. 2.

But the state’s top prosecutor — the Attorney General’s Office — is not doing much to make sure hospitals and collection companies comply with the medical debt law.

Cholla Khoury, chief deputy attorney general, told lawmakers on Nov. 29 the language in the new statute is too vague for the AG’s Office to take health care companies to court.

She said an early draft of the law explicitly linked it to the state’s Unfair Practices Act, a consumer protection law meant to shield people from unfair, deceptive or unconscionable trade practices. That language was stripped from the measure, Khoury said, “which means our enforcement power and our scope is severely limited.”

But the Center on Law and Poverty is arguing in its class action lawsuit that breaking the new law in these circumstances also counts as a violation of the Unfair Practices Act.

Courts have interpreted a list of what practices might count as unfair or deceptive as “non-exhaustive.” So even if a specific practice isn’t listed, it could still be illegal.

Khouri urged lawmakers to amend the new medical debt law to connect it to the Unfair Practices Act during the next legislative session that starts in January.

Later in the same hearing, Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) asked Cordova to weigh in on whether this change is necessary to enforce the law.

“With due respect, I don’t think that is necessary at this time,” Cordova said. “The Patients’ Debt Collection Protection Act explicitly says that the Attorney General’s Office can enforce the protections.”

Indeed, the law itself reads: “The attorney general shall enforce the provisions of the Patients’ Debt Collection Protection Act.”

The AG’s Office can argue to a judge right now that a violation of the new law also counts as a violation of the Unfair Practices Act, Cordova said.

One of the law’s three sponsors in the Roundhouse confirmed Cordova’s position.

Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) said in an interview there is no need to make violations of the new law a “per se” violation of the Unfair Practices Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard the bill twice specifically to ensure it wasn’t an issue, she said.

Duhigg said she would be very wary of reopening the law to further changes unless it was absolutely essential, “because it’s likely to be weakened if we did.”


“Our office utilizes the current rule of law to target predatory debt collection,” wrote Jerri Mares, a spokesperson for the attorney general.

Still, few members of the public even know any protections exist, Khoury and Duhigg both pointed out. And the AG’s Office “cannot act as a private attorney for individual citizens,” Mares said.


This story was updated on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 12:15 p.m. to reflect that Source NM reporter Austin Fisher asked about enforcement actions by the AG’s Office on Dec. 1.

Outgoing Attorney General Hector Balderas established the Advocacy and Intervention Division that “conducts a risk assessment of complaints and may properly refer high-risk complaints to our litigation team for their further review and determination,” Mares said.

The AG’s Office rolled out a complaint system, netting 128 complaints about aggressive debt collection by hospitals that would be subject to the new medical debt law. Roughly half of those complaints actually described potential violations, Khouri said. Six are “under review for possible further action,” Mares wrote.

After a request on Dec. 1 about enforcement actions pursuant to the Act, Mares had not provided an example before Tuesday.

Mares wrote the new law didn’t give the AG’s Office any case agents to enforce it, and two to three agents “would be an adequate start.”

If the attorney general seeks more funding from the Legislature to beef up their consumer protection work, “We will be happy to support that advocacy,” Cordova said.


Along with requiring hospitals to screen out low-income patients before taking people to court over debt, the new law mandates they report to the Human Services Department each year on how they are using public funds meant to cover ambulance rides and hospital stays.

The top five New Mexico hospitals who are filing these debt collection lawsuits are Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces, Carlsbad Medical Center, the Credit Bureau of Farmington (for debts owed to San Juan Regional Medical Center and two other companies), Lea Regional Hospital, and the Otero County Hospital Association, according to the Center on Law and Poverty’s data.

None of those five hospitals have submitted any reports on how they are spending public money meant to cover care for low-income patients, according to HSD spokesperson Marina Piña.

“We have not received reporting for this act from the providers stated in your inquiry,” Piña said via email on Dec. 2.

On Friday, Piña wrote the department had just finished working with the New Mexico Hospital Association on a template for the reports after starting that process in late 2021. All hospitals and other health care companies who receive money from Medicaid will be required to report how they are spending the money on Jan. 6 and must report again at the end of every fiscal year, she wrote.

Cordova said it’s important to not leave regulation in the hands of the entities being regulated. The department should issue rules or some kind of specific, clear requirements for these hospitals to turn over that information.

“Otherwise, we’re going to be in situations where it’s entirely discretionary for the hospitals,” Cordova said. “That’s what we’ve seen for the past year-and-a-half.”

Deaf students in New Mexico connect reading to horses - By Claudia L. Silva, Santa Fe New Mexican

Liam Mohan-Litchfield twisted and manipulated his tiny hands, using sign language to read before a white miniature horse named Thor.

"I read a book about my shoes," 7-year-old Liam signed to an interpreter.

He was one of eight students from the New Mexico School for the Deaf who traveled to My Little Horse Listener therapy facility in Los Cerrillos on Thursday to improve their reading skills while meeting a group of pint-sized equines.

"I just really want all of them to have positive experiences with reading," their teacher, Kim Burkholder, said during an interview. "For the kids who are completely deaf, reading in English is their second language, and it's a struggle for many of them. And so the more positive experiences they can have with reading, the better."

Burkholder explained that the students' conditions vary, with some being able to hear with the help of a hearing aid while others are completely deaf.

She said many of the students are also late language learners, meaning they didn't learn to sign until later in their lives.

My Little Horse Listener is a nonprofit equine therapy organization that uses horses and other hoofed mammals to connect with people through activities that strengthen relationship-building skills.

It offers a few different types of services, from an overnight stay with their animals, to domestic violence recovery sessions, where victims learn to regain trust.

Liz Delfs, the organization's founder and executive director, said she also works with families that have been torn apart by drug abuse, helping parents and children form new bonds.

Delfs said over 500 kids have taken part in the organization's various programs, including some with hearing impairments. She soon realized deaf children were able to make connections with these animals that also rely on gestures to communicate.

"Horses kind of live in a nonverbal world, and they're really dependent on hand signals and so forth," Delf said during an interview. "It's kind of fascinating how the horses and the children interact.

"The kids are just so excited when they see the horses, and it really is about the relationship the child forms with the horse. It actually showed us they were capable of doing so much more for people," she added.

Delfs said the organization also teach what she likes to call "horse wisdom," or lessons about the animals and how they can help people.

During the program, Delfs introduced the students to their four hoofed counselors: Serafina the miniature donkey, Mellie the mule, and the miniature horses Hot Dog and Thor.

She taught students, whose ages ranged from 6 to 8 years old, how to pet the equines and how they communicate with people without using words.

"They use their bodies to tell us what they want," Delfs told the students. "It's our job to always be looking at their bodies and trying to figure out what they want."

She taught them how each of the animals has their own unique personality.

Thor is the leader of the herd, who always looks over his pals. Serafina is the gentlest of the bunch, while Mellie was a bit of a wild card with a penchant for chewing on paper. His handlers called Hot Dog the comedian, who was undoubtedly the favorite of the bunch.

"Hot Dog is so cute," said 7-year-old Izzy Onstine.

Curious students asked questions about the animals, like "How much do they poop?"

"Eight times a day," Delfs answered.

After reading their books, the young pupils gathered for snacks and drew pictures of their new equine friends.

Izzy said she plans to ask her parents to bring her back to My Little Horse Listener, even though she lives very far away.

Some Albuquerque-area hospitals dealing with a patient surge - Associated Press

Some hospitals in the Albuquerque area are taking measures to free up more space amid a surge of patients that are pushing some hospitals beyond their licensed capacity.

The University of New Mexico Hospital has opened a tent outside the emergency room to triage adult patients, the Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday.

Doctors at some local hospitals said they are busier than they were during the past two winters, when the COVID-19 pandemic was driving up hospital admissions.

They also say respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and COVID are all fueling the rise in hospitalizations.

Physicians at Albuquerque-area hospitals held a briefing Monday morning during which they asked the public to wear masks in some settings, stay up-to-date on COVID and influenza vaccines and not to go into public when sick.

"The last couple of years, when we were masking, there was very, very little influenza, very little colds, very little RSV. So we know that masking works," Dr. Jason Mitchell, the chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, told the Journal.

Dr. David Scrase, the acting health secretary, issued a public health emergency order earlier this month which returned New Mexico to the "hub-and-spoke" model of patient care and made it easier for hospitals to transfer patients to different facilities around the state.

Physicians at UNMH said that at any given time, about 100 adults and 20 children are waiting for a hospital bed and they have warned people to expect long wait times in the emergency room.

Study: Medicaid providers mostly can't be reached by phone - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A "secret shopper" accountability study shows that medical patients can't readily schedule appointments by phone through Medicaid providers in New Mexico, even as the state and federal government spend $8.8 billion annually on the health care program that serves nearly half of state residents.

The budget and accountability office of the Legislature presented its findings Tuesday to a panel of lawmakers as evidence of an inadequate network of health care providers.

The agency surveyed private providers of Medicaid health care services as well as providers of mental health and addiction counseling. About 13% of attempts to make an appointment were successful.

"That's almost 90% of the time — almost all of the time — that they can't get an appointment," said Democratic state Sen. Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe, responding to the report. "So their health, obviously to me, would get worse in time if they can't be seen by good medical care or any medical care at all."

In about half of calls, appointments could not be made because of inaccurate phone listings or voicemails that went unreturned.

When primary health care providers were reached by phone, more than one-quarter were either not accepting new patients or had left the listed medical practice. The study found that patients who were able to connect with Medicaid care providers confronted waiting lists or appointment times that exceeded contractual requirements.

The consumer-protection survey was part of a broader program evaluation indicating that New Mexico residents who are enrolled in Medicaid are not using more services even as enrollment and spending on the program have surged.

Nicole Comeaux, director of the state's Medicaid program, told legislators that satisfaction surveys of Medicaid participants have shown consistent improvements since 2019 — though about 7% of respondents reported an absence of medical providers.

She outlined initiatives aimed at shoring up networks of medical providers, including requirements that 90% of Medicaid spending go toward medical care and not administrative costs.

Enrollment in Medicaid has climbed by 16% since 2019, according to program evaluators for the Legislature. Spending is up 56% over the same period. But per-patient use of certain Medicaid physical care services declined or remained steady. Program evaluators for the Legislature say pandemic-related curtailments in medical services could be partly to blame.

Managed care organizations, which manage the delivery and payment of health care services for people using Medicaid insurance, are required to conduct their own secret-shopper surveys. A review of those surveys found there was no standard methodology and that some overbooked medical providers were exempt from participation.

85,000 New Mexicans or more could be kicked off Medicaid this winter - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

After the Biden administration calls the end of the state of emergency for COVID, between 85,000 and 100,000 people in New Mexico would be kicked off Medicaid, according to the state’s Human Services Department.

Those changes could begin on March 1 of next year — that’s the earliest possible date — New Mexico’s top health official told a panel of state lawmakers on Monday.

A requirement for continuous health care coverage during the public health emergency helped stop the periodic “churn” in the Medicaid program, where people get kicked off the rolls but quickly re-apply because they still need health care. The result of such uncertainty is delayed medical care, fewer preventive visits, and periods of uninsurance.

“Do you have a plan for how your department is going to address that once we’re having to recertify and process that paperwork?” Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) asked acting Department of Health Secretary David Scrase.

“There is a plan like you would not believe, and meetings like you would not believe, to make sure we’re ready when the time comes for that,” Scrase responded at the Legislative Finance Committee meeting on Monday.

More than one-third of the people in New Mexico are covered either by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the highest proportion of any state in the country.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act protects people enrolled in Medicaid with continuous coverage until the end of the public health emergency, gives states more money to administer Medicaid, and prohibits states from making fewer people eligible or imposing new bureaucratic hurdles to enrollment.

The Biden administration promised to give state governments 60 days’ notice before declaring the public health emergency over. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has said it would be “tough” to give much more notice than that.

The warning is meant to provide “enough time for states to roll out their unwinding plans,” New Mexico HSD spokesperson Marina Piña said in an email.

The federal public health emergency declaration lasts through Jan. 11, and there hasn’t yet been any indication that it will be extended. The federal government did not meet the deadline to notify states, so an end date for expanded Medicaid is unclear.

A request for comment sent to the federal Health and Human Services Department was not returned as of Monday afternoon.

Once the federal public health emergency ends, Piña said, someone who loses Medicaid could complete a renewal application to see whether they still qualify. The Department will mail renewal packets, she added.

“HSD is encouraging all customers to make sure the department has their most up-to-date contact information,” she said. “The easiest way to update is by using the chat at the YESNM Portal.”

Nationwide, the number of people on Medicaid increased between February 2020 and August 2022 by more than 27% nationwide to a total of 90.6 million people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That includes 980,931 people in New Mexico as of Monday, Piña wrote. That number is expected to reach more than 1 million by January, the state’s Medicaid director told the Albuquerque Journal.

Federal HHS estimates as many as 15 million people across the country will lose health coverage once states again start recertifying and disenrolling people.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján: Billions for northern NM fire victims still up in the air in DC - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said negotiations are fluctuating daily on a congressional spending bill that includes almost $3 billion more for victims of the biggest fire in New Mexico history. This funding would come in addition to the $2.5 billion Congress voted to send to the state earlier this year.

Luján, a Democrat, told Source New Mexico that Congress has to agree on two big spending bills before the end of the year, including a catch-all spending bill by Dec. 16 and the National Defense Authorization Act. The catch-all bill is the best way he sees for additional money to reach fire victims here, he said.

There’s back and forth with Senate Republicans about whether to pass an omnibus measure that funds a variety of programs, he said, “and it fluctuates day by day.”

“I believe most members, Democratic and Republican senators, want to see an omnibus. But there must be an effort to coalesce to get it done,” he said Saturday after speaking to a group of acequia stewards in Las Vegas, N.M.

President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve $37 billion to help communities across the country recover from a year of damaging floods and other natural disasters. That request includes $2.9 billion to pay claims to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which began with two botched prescribed burns by the United States Forest Service and scorched more than 530 square miles north of Las Vegas.

Biden is also asking Congress to include additional money for COVID relief and Ukraine in the spending bill it passes before the year is up. Beginning in January, a new Republican-majority House of Representatives will convene, making it harder for Biden to get his priorities funded.

Congress already approved $2.5 billion in late September for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend on victims of the fire in a bill that aimed to fully compensate them for their losses and cover administrative costs.

But a report from Biden’s Office of Management and Budget states that claims for victims could reach $5.4 billion, hence the additional request.

According to the OMB, the $2.9 billion would be spent over the next five years, with $1 billion spent on claims in 2024, $1.3 billion in 2025, $616 million 2026 and $3 million in 2027. The office did not respond to a Source NM question about how it arrived at those figures.

FEMA is gearing up to establish a claims office to spend the money it has so far. It is holding job fairs to hire locals to help run the program and is accepting public comment on the rules for how the program will operate.

Luján said he is cautiously optimistic that his colleagues in the Senate and the House are prepared to come to an agreement before the end of the year. He said he’s seeing them change their travel schedules to stay in Washington, D.C., until Dec. 23.

“That tells me that it’s more likely that something comes together for them to coalesce around,” he said. “But right now, there just has to be agreement from Senate Republicans to say ‘Let’s get this done. Let’s move forward.’”

SD prosecutors drop all charges against Indigenous activist - Associated Press

South Dakota prosecutors have dropped all charges against the head of an Indigenous-led advocacy organization stemming from a protest during then-President Donald Trump's visit to Mount Rushmore, the group announced Tuesday.

NDN Collective President Nick Tilsen was among those arrested July 3, 2020, when the protest seeking return of the Black Hills to Lakota control escalated into a scuffle with law enforcement. The charges included robbery and assault of a law enforcement officer.

Tilsen agreed to participate in a diversion program rather than face prison time, but claimed prosecutors backed out of the agreement last year after he spoke to the media about it. In his motion for dismissal, Tilsen said his remarks were protected by the First Amendment.

Deputy State's Attorney Colleen Moran filed the dismissal Nov. 18, court documents show.

"My case held a mirror up to the so-called legal system, where prosecutors — fueled by white fragility and fear of Indigenous power — wasted years of state resources to intimidate, criminalize, and violate me," Tilsen said in a statement Tuesday. "The fact that I've gone from facing 17 years in prison to all charges dismissed is not a coincidence or an act of justice — it's evidence that the charges were bogus from the start."

The case was transferred earlier from Pennington County in Rapid City to Minnehaha County in Sioux Falls. The original prosecutor, Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo, who is temporarily serving as South Dakota's interim attorney general, said he had a conflict of interest because he was called to testify.

Minnehaha County States Attorney Daniel Haggar did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the decision to dismiss the charges.