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FRI: Lawsuit: Guards Mistook Dentures For Contraband, Beat Inmate + More

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Lawsuit: Guards Mistook Dentures For Contraband, Beat InmateAssociated Press

A man was brutally beaten by corrections officers and denied medical treatment at a county jail in a small New Mexico community after guards mistook dentures in the inmate's mouth for contraband, according to a civil rights lawsuit.

The New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, a watchdog group for improving prison conditions, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week on behalf of former inmate Marvin Silva.

The group said Silva was left naked in a holding cell at the Valencia County Adult Detention Center with no security cameras after a medical checkup, when a guard insisted that the inmate was hiding contraband in his mouth.

The lawsuit said said several other corrections officers arrived and beat Silva at the lockup in the community of Los Lunas, about 30 minutes from Albuquerque.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary compensation for Silva for injuries and emotional harm plus punitive damages against the jail and health care employees and attorney's fees.

Administrators at the Valencia County detention center did not immediately respond Friday to phone messages seeking comment. County officials referred questions to attorneys who did not immediately respond to phone and email messages.

The lawsuit levels charges of excessive use of force at four corrections officers and accuses Texas-based prison health care provider CorrHealth and two of its employees of deliberate indifference to a person in serious medical need.

CorrHealth President Todd Murphy said Thursday that he could not comment on details of an active legal claim.

"Allegations such as these are important to us, as is ensuring we're providing a high standard of care," Murphy said in an email. "Our team will be closely reviewing these allegations and this claim."

According to the lawsuit, medical personnel at the jail denied Silva's requests for medical care before he was released to walk 5 miles (8 kilometers) toward home and hitched a ride the rest of the way.

An ambulance later transported Silva to an Albuquerque hospital that treated him for fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, injuries to the spleen and other injuries to the head, neck and abdomen.

New Mexico's Mask Mandate For Schools Sparks Legal Battle -- By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A legal battle is brewing in New Mexico over what power state education officials have over local school boards and what limits there are to that authority.

The fight stems from the Public Education Department's suspension this week of a rural school board that voted to make masks optional for students when they return to class. The agency also has filed a complaint in state district court seeking the permanent removal of the board.

Robert Aragon, one of the attorneys representing the Floyd school board, said the education department is overstepping its authority and that the case highlights one of the basic tenants of education governance — that local officials know best about the needs of the local community.

"This is not a partisan issue," Aragon said. "It's an issue that goes to the core of governance. ... Schools have locally been governed by locally elected individuals, and now we have a state secretary and governor who are trying to centralize one-size-fits-all policies contrary to state statute."

He pointed to a previous court ruling that found the state education secretary does have some authority but it's not without limits and that state statutes provide for those limits by granting school boards the authority of self-governance.

In its court filing, the state argued that all schools in New Mexico are required to follow guidelines issued by the Public Education Department concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Those guidelines mandate that all unvaccinated people wear a mask while in a school building, during school-sponsored activities and on buses. There also are testing requirements, and social distancing is required for unvaccinated students and staff.

The New Mexico Department of Health on July 30 issued an updated public health order confirming the education department's authority to issue guidelines for public schools. The order also authorized the department to enforce the guidelines on private schools.

The department warned in its complaint of "irreparable injury" if the court doesn't permanently remove the board, saying the school year begins next week and there could be an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

While infections have been increasing nationwide, state data shows the uptick among school-age children in New Mexico has been lower than other age groups. As of Monday, the state reported that about 16% of the infections over the last seven days were pediatric cases and that no hospitalizations had been reported for that group.

More parents have been coming forward with concerns about the mandates, saying they aren't being given a choice as school boards adopt state and federal guidance.

Republican lawmakers also have criticized the state's approach.

The dismissed school board members will be filing their own complaint in state district court Friday, asking that the court deny the state's request for their permanent removal.

There are concerns about how the Public Education Department crafted the COVID-19 guidelines, Aragon said, noting that rules are usually proposed, the public has an opportunity to comment and the agency considers the input before adopting a final version. That didn't happen in this case, he said.

"There is a law that allows school boards to act independent, to be a separate governing entity, to create policies for their local districts," he said. "This fight is important to every family in the state of New Mexico."

Virgin Galactic Restarts Space-Trip Sales At $450,000 And UpAssociated Press

The ticket window is open again for space flights at Virgin Galactic, with prices starting at $450,000 a seat.

The space-tourism company said Thursday it is making progress toward beginning revenue flights next year. It will sell single seats, package deals and entire flights.

Virgin Galactic announced the offerings as it reported Thursday that it lost $94 million in the second quarter on soaring costs for overhead and sales. The company posted revenue of $571,000, barely enough to cover one seat on a future flight.

The company's most noteworthy recent achievement came last month, after the quarter ended, when founder Richard Branson and five crewmates soared  to 53.5 miles (86 kilometers) above the New Mexico desert.

CEO Michael Colglazier said the company resumed sales on Thursday to take advantage of a surge in consumer interest after the flight by Branson, who beat rival billionaire Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin ship  into space by nine days.

The company based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, won regulatory approval in June to fly people into space.

Virgin Galactic said "early hand-raisers" will get first priority to book seats, and another list will be created for new customers.

The company's next spaceflight is scheduled for late September in New Mexico with the Italian air force.

Virgin Galactic said it ended the quarter with cash and equivalents totaling $552 million.

The results were released after the stock market closed. The company's shares were up nearly 5% in after-hours trading.

Attorney Disqualified In New Mexico Utility Merger Case -- By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

An attorney representing an international energy company involved in a utility merger in New Mexico has been disqualified because of an alleged conflict of interest stemming from ongoing contracts with the state attorney general's office.

A hearing examiner with the state Public Regulation Commission issued the order Friday, saying Marcus Rael Jr. can no longer represent Iberdrola in connection with the utility case.

The order pointed out that the New Mexico Supreme Court has held that disqualification based on a conflict of interest claim should take place before any substantive hearings get underway.

Hearings begin Monday on the proposed multibillion-dollar merger between the Public Service Co. of New Mexico, the state's largest electric provider, and Avangrid, a U.S. subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola.

Watchdog groups had filed complaints in July with the state auditor, the state Ethics Commission and the disciplinary board of the New Mexico Supreme Court that highlighted Attorney General Hector Balderas' relationship with the law firm where Rael works. They alleged that Rael used his influence to convince Balderas to sign off on the merger and that Balderas awarded numerous contracts to Rael and approved improper invoices.

Balderas and Rael both graduated from the University of New Mexico law school in 2001 and briefly worked together before Balderas ran for public office.

Rael said Friday he doesn't believe there is a conflict but will honor the order. He said he joined the Avangrid and Iberdrola team because he believes the merger is in the best interest of New Mexicans, and he's proud of the work he has done.

"I look forward to the merger being complete so that New Mexico achieves its renewable energy goals," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "New Mexico is poised to be a leader in renewable energy, and with AVANGRID/Iberdrola, we are assured to get there."

In filings with the utility commission, the attorney general's office and Iberdrola had denied there was any conflict.

Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, suggested the claims about a conflict were a "sideshow" and the case needs to proceed on the actual merits.

The hearing examiner noted in the order that the case is of public interest. It will affect more than a half-million customers and New Mexico's economy as a whole as it will likely change the way electricity is generated and delivered in the state.

Some critics have said a proposed settlement agreement between Avangrid and PNM Resources — the parent company of Public Service Co. of New Mexico — doesn't go far enough when it come to customer benefits or funds to support economic development in the state.

PNM and Avangrid recently announced more concessions since their initial proposal failed to win the necessary support. The latest proposal includes $65 million in rate credits for customers, economic development donations of $15 million and additional money for energy efficiency assistance for low-income customers.

New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi is among those who have raised concerns about the merger and Rael's relationship with the attorney general's office. Public records obtained by her group and a review by Searchlight New Mexico showed that since taking office in 2015, Balderas has hired Rael or others at his firm to help represent the state in at least 19 cases, which is at least triple the number of cases farmed out to any other private law firm.

Invoices and contracts from the attorney general's office showed more than $3 million in direct payments of fees and expenses to the Robles, Rael & Anaya law firm.

The hearing examiner's order also pointed to a series of meetings between Rael and the attorney general's office from late February through early April while the attorney general was preparing testimony that initially opposed the planned merger.

Colorado mine owner seeks US compensation over 2015 spill – Associated Press

The owner of an inactive southwestern Colorado mine that was the source of a disastrous 2015 spill that fouled rivers in three Western states has sued the U.S. government, seeking nearly $3.8 million in compensation for using his land in its cleanup.

Todd Hennis claims the Environmental Protection Agency has occupied part of his property near the Gold King Mine but hasn't compensated him for doing so since the August 2015 spill, The Durango Herald reported. He also contends that the EPA contaminated his land by causing the spill, which sent a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Hennis argued that the EPA's actions have violated his Fifth Amendment rights to just compensation for public use of private property.

The EPA didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday.

An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the mine when it inadvertently breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater inside the mine.

The spill released 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of wastewater that made its way into the Animas River and eventually down to the San Juan River. Water utilities were forced to shut down intake valves, and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the plume moved downstream.

After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King Mine and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency is still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.

The lawsuit says Hennis verbally authorized the government to use part of a 33-acre (13-hectare) piece of land as an emergency staging area right after the blowout. He thought it would be temporary and that he would be compensated, according to the lawsuit.

Hennis claims that months later and without his permission, the EPA built a $2.3 million water treatment facility on the property. The agency continues treating water and storing waste there, the lawsuit says.

He's asking for at least $3 million in compensation for damage to and occupation of the property, which he says is worth at least $3 million according to a private appraisal this year. The lawsuit also seeks interest.

In January, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation announced settlements in litigation over the spill with companies that had operated mines near Gold King. Last year, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit brought by Utah for a fraction of what it was initially seeking in damages.

Governor Pardons 19 People, Some Violent Convictions – By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pardoned 19 people for convictions ranging from cocaine trafficking to domestic violence, bribing a witness and shoplifting, her office announced Friday.

The pardons, signed Monday, represent the third round of clemency decisions since the Democratic governor took office in January 2019. She has now pardoned 50 individuals in all.

Nonviolent offenses such as fraud, burglary and telephone harassment dominate the list of pardoned convictions. In addition, clemency was provided in four instances linked to violent crime for shooting into a dwelling, domestic violence, battery and aggravated assault.

"Nearly all of the offenses were at least a decade old, some dating back several decades," the governor's office said in a news release.

The governor's pardoning power extends to all crimes committed under state law other than the offenses of impeachment and treason. The governor does not have authority to pardon convictions for violations of municipal ordinances or from other jurisdictions, such as convictions from other states and federal convictions.

Lujan Grisham's predecessor, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, pardoned a total of just three people during her eight years in office. Martinez denied at least 72 pardon applications, including 13 in which the state Parole Board recommended approval.

Parole Board recommendations were not immediately available Friday for the newly pardoned individuals. Lujan Grisham is seeking re-election in 2022.

Teacher Union President: Goal Is To Get Kids Back To School – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press 

 

The head of a national teachers union visited New Mexico on Thursday as part of a nationwide campaign to convince parents that it's safe to send their kids back to public school. 

The effort comes as more parents voice concerns over mask mandates, saying they aren't being given a choice as school boards adopt state and federal guidance on the matter. 

The Albuquerque school board ended its meeting early Wednesday amid parents protesting and members of a rural school board in eastern New Mexico were suspended by state officials for deciding that masks would be optional this school year. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she believes masks are among the precautions that school districts can take to ensure students can safely return to in-person learning. 

In her talks with parents around the country, she said they want to know details of plans by officials to keep their kids safe, plans for masks and whether school ventilation systems have been improved. 

“We’re on a full court press this month to build trust among parents and educators that schools are safe and to get shots in the arms of people who have been resistant,” Weingarten said in an an interview. 

Weingarten was criticized in recent weeks after some said she wavered on school reopenings following the reversal of federal officials on mask-wearing rules for vaccinated people. 

But Weingarten stressed that her union's goal is to get students back into the classroom and do it safely. 

“We are reopening our schools full-time because we know our kids need it but we also know they need to be safe,” she said. 

Weingarten's meeting Thursday with school officials in Rio Rancho followed visits to Albany, New York, on Monday, where she knocked on parents' doors and a trip to Florida over the weekend, where concerns are high due to a surge of COVID-19 cases. 

“I think the last three weeks of the delta surge has given people pause again — not a pause about reopening schools, but that the safety issues are front and center again,” she said. 

Weingarten will travel to seven more states this week as part of the union's campaign to support vaccination clinics and encourage parents through billboards, advertisements, town halls and door-to-door visits that schools are safe. The work is funded by $5 million in grants. 

She said the Rio Rancho district has been building on efforts that were started earlier this year to ensure student and staff safety. The school board voted 3-2 this week to allow vaccinated secondary students the option of not wearing masks after they show proof of immunization. 

New Mexico’s largest district — Albuquerque Public Schools — is requiring all students, employees and visitors to wear masks while inside, whether they are vaccinated or not. Santa Fe schools are requiring masks inside school buildings and on buses. 

New Mexico health officials say nearly 40% of children ages 12 through 17 in the state have been fully vaccinated. 

While the state's overall vaccination rate is about 65%, officials said they are pleased that the rate is increasing among younger people. 

New Mexico on Thursday reported another 671 confirmed infections — the highest daily total since March. However, state data shows that the percentage of new cases each week for those under 18 have been much lower than other age groups. 

New Mexico Announces 50% of 12-17-Year Olds Have Received At Least a First Dose Of COVID-19 Vaccine - KUNM News

The New Mexico Department of Health announced on Thursday that more than 50% of 12-17 year-olds in the state have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 40% have completed their vaccination series. 

The announcement comes amid a wave of new infections connected to the Delta variant, which is 2-4 times more contagious than previous strains. In the last two weeks, cases across the country are up 131%, and deaths are up 65%. 

Getting vaccinated is key to protecting the vulnerable, according to  DOH Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon, including people who are immunocompromised and children 11 years and younger who are not yet eligible for vaccine.  

New Mexico state health officials on Thursday announced 671 additional COVID-19 cases, as well as three deaths from the virus. 230  people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus. 

 

Lawsuit: Guards Mistook Dentures For Contraband, Beat Inmate – Associated Press 

 

A man was brutally beaten by corrections officers and denied medical treatment at a Valencia County jail in Los Lunas after guards mistook dentures in the inmate's mouth for contraband, a civil rights lawsuit said. 

The New Mexico Prison and Jail Project, a watchdog group for improving prison conditions, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week on behalf of former inmate Marvin Silva. 

The group said Silva was left naked in a holding cell with no security cameras after a medical checkup, when a guard insisted that the inmate was hiding contraband in his mouth. They said several other corrections officers arrived and beat Silva. 

The lawsuit seeks compensation to Silva for injuries and emotional harm, punitive damages against the jail and health care employees and attorney’s fees. 

Administrators at the Valencia County Adult Detention Center could not immediately be reached for comment. The lawsuit levels charges of excessive use of force at four corrections officers, and accuses prison health care provider CorrHealth and two of its employees of deliberate indifference to a person in serious medical need. 

CorrHealth President Todd Murphy said Thursday that he had not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on a pending liability claim. 

According to the lawsuit, medical personnel at the jail denied Silva's requests for medical care before he was released to walk 5 miles toward home and hitched a ride the rest of the way. 

An ambulance later transported Silva to an Albuquerque hospital that treated him for fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, injuries to the spleen and other injuries to the head, neck and abdomen. 

Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 Related Deaths For 5th Day In A Row – Associated Press 

 

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 43 new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the fifth consecutive day. 

The latest numbers released by tribal health officials pushed the total number of coronavirus cases to 31,529 since the pandemic began more than a year ago. 

The known death toll remains at 1,377. 

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

“The numbers of COVID-19 cases are rising across the country due to the delta variant and we are seeing a gradual increase here on the Navajo Nation as well,” tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Thursday. “We have to get more of our people fully vaccinated. The data shows that the large majority of those who are getting the virus are those who are not vaccinated.” 

Virgin Galactic Restarts Space-Trip Sales At $450,000 And Up – Associated Press 

 

The ticket window is open again for space flights at Virgin Galactic, with prices starting at $450,000 a seat. 

The space-tourism company said Thursday it is making progress toward beginning revenue flights next year. It will sell single seats, package deals and entire flights. 

Virgin Galactic announced the offerings as it reported Thursday that it lost $94 million in the second quarter on soaring costs for overhead and sales. The company posted revenue of $571,000, barely enough to cover one seat on a future flight. 

The company’s most noteworthy recent achievement came last month, after the quarter ended, when founder Richard Branson and five crewmates soared to 53.5 miles above the New Mexico desert. 

CEO Michael Colglazier said the company resumed sales on Thursday to take advantage of a surge in consumer interest after the flight by Branson, who beat rival billionaire Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin ship into space by nine days. 

The company based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, won regulatory approval in June to fly people into space. 

Virgin Galactic said “early hand-raisers” will get first priority to book seats, and another list will be created for new customers. 

The company’s next spaceflight is scheduled for late September in New Mexico with the Italian air force. 

Virgin Galactic said it ended the quarter with cash and equivalents totaling $552 million. 

The results were released after the stock market closed. The company's shares were up nearly 5% in after-hours trading.