FRI: Biden Names Udall Ambassador To New Zealand, + More

Jul 16, 2021

Biden Picks Former Sen. Tom Udall for New Zealand Ambassador - By Michael Balsamo and Aamer Madhani Associated Press

President Joe Biden is nominating former New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall to serve as his ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

Udall, a Democrat, retired in 2021 after two terms in the Senate representing New Mexico. He spent five terms in the House and served as New Mexico's attorney general. He comes from a family well known for public service: his father Stewart Udall served as interior secretary, his uncle Mo Udall was a congressman from Colorado and his cousin Mark Udall was a senator from Colorado.

"Having dedicated my life to public service and having served as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focusing on policies that promote democracy, international development, and conservation, I am honored to be nominated by President Biden to this next role serving our great country," Udall said in a statement.

Udall is the third former Senate colleague that Biden has tapped for an ambassadorial position.

He's also nominated Ken Salazar, a Democrat who represented Colorado and served as Interior secretary in the Obama administration, to serve as ambassador to Mexico, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who endorsed Biden's 2020 run, to serve as ambassador to Turkey.

Biden is also expected to nominate Democratic fundraiser Jane Hartley to serve as his ambassador to the United Kingdom, according to a person familiar with the decision who was not authorized to comment publicly.

It was not immediately clear when the White House would formally announce the appointment of Hartley, who served as ambassador to France and Monaco during the Obama administration. She was a significant fundraiser for Biden's 2020 run for the White House.

The White House declined to comment about Hartley's pending nomination, which was first reported by the Washington Post.

Hartley served as chief executive of the economic and political advisory firm Observatory Group, director of congressional relations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and in the Carter administration. She is married to Ralph Schlosstein, chief executive of investment bank Evercore.

The UK ambassadorship is one of the most high profile diplomatic postings and often comes with an expectation that the nominee can foot the bill for entertaining on behalf of the United States.

Former President Donald Trump turned to New York Jets owner Robert "Woody" Johnson for the London posting. Barack Obama turned to businessman Matthew Barzun and lawyer Louis Susman during his time in office. Robert Tuttle, a Californian who made his money in the car dealership business, held the post under George W. Bush.

Biden is also considering nominating Democratic fundraiser George Tsunis, founder and CEO of Chartwell Hotels, to serve as ambassador to Greece, according to two people familiar with the White House deliberations.

Tsunis was nominated by Obama in 2013 to serve as ambassador to Norway, but gave up on consideration after a difficult Senate confirmation hearing. Tsunis acknowledged during the hearing that he had not visited Norway and mistakenly referred to the country's head of government as "president" rather than "prime minister."

The White House is weighing Tsunis at the urging of Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, according to two people familiar with the administration's deliberations. Menendez, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has important influence over the pace of confirmation hearings for the ambassadorial nominees.

The White House also announced Friday that Biden was nominating three career foreign service officers to ambassadorships: Caryn McClelland to Brunei Darussalam, Michael Murphy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Howard Van Vranken to Botswana.

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Madhani reported from Chicago.

New Video Shows Deputies Firing At Suspect As He Runs Away - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Newly released video shows sheriff's deputies in New Mexico firing their weapons at a suspect after he had dropped a gun and started running away, providing details that didn't appear in the original narrative from officials investigating the deadly shooting last month.

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Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies fatally shot Nathan Roybal, 32, after he led them on a chase in Santa Fe in a pickup truck that was wanted in connection with a reported assault, authorities said.

Footage from deputies' body-worn cameras and vehicle dashboard cameras, which was first obtained this week by television station KRQE, show Roybal pulling over in the truck and waving and firing a handgun at deputies through the driver's window on June 23. Deputies then fire at the truck from at least two angles.

They shoot again as Roybal leaves the truck, drops his gun and runs away with his back to deputies, the videos show.

An initial account from New Mexico State Police on June 24 said, "A male suspect got out of the vehicle, pointed a black handgun at the deputies. Deputies fired at the suspect, striking him."

After multiple outlets reported on the video this week, state police released additional information Thursday, including the names of the three deputies who fired: Cpl. Chris Zook, Deputy Leonardo Guzman and Deputy Jacob Martinez. Each has about a decade of law enforcement experience.

They also released Roybal's name, which the sheriff's department had included in public documents.

State police officials routinely withhold information in fatal police shootings, citing the need to notify next of kin and interview law enforcement involved.

A man fatally shot in November was not named for two weeks after his mother was notified, and his family launched a public campaign demanding more information.

Details in that case, including the names of officers, were released hours after Black Lives Matter protesters picketed in front of the official residence of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Ousted Albuquerque Police Chief Files Whistleblower Lawsuit - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Albuquerque's former police chief is accusing top city officials of violating open record laws and a state statute meant to protect whistleblowers.

Michael Geier and his former assistant, Paulette Diaz, filed a complaint against the city in state district court late Wednesday. It specifically references Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, saying they micromanaged the police department and undermined Geier's efforts to address crime and comply with federal mandates related to police reforms.

After Geier was forced to resign last September, Keller's administration defended the decision, saying the chief wasn't doing his job.

Geier disputed that claim and leveled his own accusations in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal weeks after he was dismissed. Many of those concerns were outlined in the lawsuit, which seeks damages that include back pay as well as lost wages and benefits.

The mayor's office issued a statement Thursday, saying previous internal investigations had debunked the "wild accusations" made during Geier's final months as chief and that the complaint amounted to "nothing more than sour grapes."

"While we haven't seen this lawsuit, it appears he's turning to the courts to re-litigate false claims," the mayor's office said.

The complaint comes as Keller faces growing criticism for the city's crime problem. The Democrat is running for reelection.

Albuquerque was pushed into the national spotlight in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump announced the city would be one of several across the U.S. where federal agents would be sent to help tackle violent crime. Although auto thefts and other property crimes have decreased in the last couple years, homicides and violent crimes have remained high.

Albuquerque had 80 homicides in 2019, which was more than any other year in memory. There were almost as many in 2020. This year, the city is on track to shatter that record, having logged more than 60 in just the first six months of 2021.

It's a trend elsewhere too, as dozens of other cities have reported increases in their homicide rates over the last year.

During a recent online town hall, members of the Albuquerque Police Department's command staff said the nexus for homicides, particularly shootings, seems to involve drugs as well as parties where there's drinking involved.

Geier's lawsuit says he had instituted several programs aimed at reducing the city's crime rate and that he had tried to increase the department's compliance as it worked with a federal monitor on sweeping reforms that were part of a 2014 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. The agreement stemmed from a string of excessive force cases that predated Geier's tenure.

Geier also tried to recruit more officers to the understaffed department, but the lawsuit mentions misconduct at the police academy, incidents of discrimination against some cadets and resistance to implementing the reforms.

According to the lawsuit, Geier said his efforts were stymied by Keller and Nair's interference. The complaint states that the two had personal involvement with the selection of personnel for police department positions, tactical operations, crowd control measures, and social media posts published in Geier's name without his consent.

Nair denied that the Keller administration was making tactical decisions for the department when asked by reporters last year.

The lawsuit also talks about conversations with Keller and Nair in which they told Geier he needed to resign.

"The fruits of Keller and Nair's actions are echoed upon the city of Albuquerque with unprecedented violent crime rates and a police department on the verge of actual collapse," the lawsuit states.

Explainer: Will New Mexico Do Enough To Limit Evictions? - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes in many states. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here's the situation in New Mexico:

WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

New Mexico is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. It covers evictions for tenants who are unable to pay rent. Evictions continue for other reasons. The state Supreme Court will decide when to lift the state moratorium and has not set an expiration date yet.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

New Mexico and two major counties have set aside $171 million to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. Last year, the state dedicated $13 million from the federal CARES Act to mortgage and rental assistance. This year, the state has access to $157 million in federal emergency rental assistance. The money can go toward 15 months of rent and other expenses, including internet access. So far, the state estimates it has distributed about $3 million, acknowledging that many eligible tenants have not applied.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

State and municipal judges are under orders to halt the final step in the eviction process for an inability to pay rent. Tenants must provide courts with evidence of their current inability to pay rent.

Statistics from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts say evictions fell by 40%, or 1,977 annual evictions, for the 12-month period ending in February from the same period immediately before the pandemic struck.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Housing affordability is in line with the national average across much of New Mexico. Prior to the pandemic, New Mexico was just below the national average in its share of cost-burdened housing renters who devote at least 30% of income to housing costs.

New Mexico's current vacancy rate is similar to the roughly 7% national average, though the housing market is much tighter in the state capital city of Santa Fe.

State housing authorities say that overcrowding and poor housing conditions have contributed to the high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among New Mexico's Native American population.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It's hard to say how much homelessness will increase in New Mexico. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 12,560 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.

Maria Griego, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, fears that some landlords may be reluctant to pursue emergency rental assistance as property and rental prices surge and current lease agreements expire.

Coalition Blasts Plans To Divert Colorado River Amid Drought - By Sam Metz Associated Press / Report For America

Farmers, environmentalists and small-town business owners gathered at the Hoover Dam on Thursday to call for a moratorium on pipelines and dams along the Colorado River that they said jeopardizes the 40 million people who rely on it as a water source.

They're pushing for the moratoriums as parts of the U.S. West are gripped by historic drought and hotter temperatures and dry vegetation provide fuel for wildfires sweeping the region. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

"We're here to say, 'Damn the status quo,'" said Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.

"No more business as usual. Why? Because we're failing: It's plain and simple. We shouldn't be seeing that bathtub ring growing like it is," he added, gesturing toward the white band that wraps the perimeter of Lake Mead, marking former water levels.

Hot temperatures and less snowpack have decreased the amount of water that flows from the Rocky Mountains down through the arid deserts of the Southwest into the Gulf of California.

Scientists attribute the extreme conditions to a combination of natural weather patterns and human-caused climate change, which has made the West warmer and drier in the past 30 years. 

Almost a century after seven U.S. states divvied up the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two manmade reservoirs that store river water — are shrinking faster than expected, spreading panic throughout a region that relies on the river to sustain 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

Nevada does not use its full allocation of river water and stands to be less affected by the cuts tied to the federal water shortage declaration than Arizona, where farmers will have to rely more heavily on groundwater and leave fields unplanted.

Officials in both states acknowledge the record lows are part of an ongoing downward spiral for the river but assure water users that they've spent years preparing and have enough water to accommodate expected population growth and supply farmers.

But those speaking at Hoover Dam on Thursday blasted water officials and said agreements reached in 2007 and 2019 weren't fulfilling their purpose to maintain the river. They said proponents of projects to facilitate more water consumption weren't being realistic about action needed to ensure the Colorado River continues to supply water and hydropower to the region's cities and farms.

Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel said state and federal officials should abandon plans to build a pipeline to siphon water from Lake Powell to the Sand Hollow Reservoir in southern Utah. He said it was important to ensure federal infrastructure dollars weren't spent on projects that enable more wasteful water use and pointed out that Utah's Washington County — which would benefit from the diversion — uses more water per capita than Las Vegas and Phoenix.

"It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we will be proposing a new water diversion upstream. While the lower basin is going to diet and cutting its water use, we should not let the upper basin go to an all-you-can-eat buffet," he said.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which oversees water in parts of Southern California and has water rights to roughly 20% of the Colorado River — more than Nevada and Arizona combined — withdrew from the most recent set of negotiations. JB Hamby, the vice president of the district's board, said it was important that water management policies made in the future ensured that rural farming communities — which use the majority of the region's water — wouldn't bear the brunt of the drought so that cities can keep growing.

"This suburban 'manifest destiny' threatens the current and future sustainability of this river and communities that depend on it. We must champion and protect the diverse benefits of irrigated farmland for the West, the nation and the world — for food production and security, the environment, wildlife preservation, recreation and tourism and efficient water management."

Navajo Nation Reports 22 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 22 new COVID-19 cases and one more death.

The figures released by the Navajo Department of Health brought the total number of cases on the vast reservation to 31,154 since the pandemic began. The death toll now is at 1,364.

The Navajo Nation recently relaxed restrictions to allow visitors to travel on the reservation and visit popular attractions like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley. 

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

While cases are down, Navajo leaders are urging residents to continue wearing masks and get vaccinated.

"The data across the country shows that the large majority of new infections and deaths are those who are not vaccinated," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "The vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19 and the variants."

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