FRI: Former Cabinet secretary defends auto dealerships from Tesla, + More

Oct 8, 2021

Former Cabinet secretary defends auto dealerships from Tesla - Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A recently retired state Cabinet secretary who oversaw New Mexico's first major foray into electric vehicles for government fleets has gone to work at a lobbying group for automotive dealerships as they safeguard state-authorized control over direct sales of new vehicles from incursions by electric-car maker Tesla and other potential rivals.

Ken Ortiz retired in June as secretary of the General Services Department. He has begun work as president of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association by publicly defending New Mexico's ban on direct sales of motor vehicles and highlighting local employment provided by auto dealerships.

Tesla forged a route around the state's direct-sales prohibition last month as it opened a store and repair shop on autonomous Native American land at Nambé Pueblo in northern New Mexico. It marked a new approach in Tesla's yearslong fight to sell cars directly to consumers and cut dealerships out of the process.

The company led by business magnate Elon Musk can sell and service its vehicles freely in only about a dozen states.

In commentary delivered this week to news outlets, Ortiz asserted that new-car dealerships — and not direct-to-consumer manufacturers — are best equipped to deploy electric vehicles and speed the transition to cleaner transportation in response to climate change.

Contacted by phone, Ortiz said Tesla "is not really the issue."

He added: "We just feel that with the existing franchise law, outside of the sovereign nations, that dealers are there for a reason. We're imbedded in local communities, we're contributing to state tax dollars, with payroll."

Heather Ferguson, executive director of the government accountability group Common Cause New Mexico, said the quick transition by Ortiz from Cabinet secretary to industry spokesman smacks of crony capitalism.

"The perception this creates, on the heels of the Tesla deal, is concerning," Ferguson said. "Each one of these things chips away at the state's national reputation as to whether businesses can come in and get a fair shake. It hurts our economy."

Proposals to allow direct vehicle sales without a dealership have met with rejection by the state Legislature, as recently as 2019.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday through a spokeswoman that she would support reforms to the state's statutory prohibition on direct new vehicle sales if initiated and approved by the Legislature.

Ortiz carved out a reputation as a trusted and skilled public administrator in state government under Democratic and Republican elected leaders, with roles ranging from motor vehicle division director to secretary of the state labor agency.

Appointed in 2019 by Lujan Grisham, Ortiz guided the General Services Department in contracting multimillion-dollar improvements to government buildings aimed at greater energy efficiency, incorporating solar power and lowing electricity bills.

Under Ortiz, the agency also introduced plug-in electric vehicles to the state fleet — and negotiated standardized pricing for government agencies with local automotive dealerships for the electric Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf, models chosen for compatibility.

Ortiz said he was at least two steps removed from those negotiations with dealerships.

He said the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association has contract lobbyists.

"So far I haven't registered as a lobbyist yet because I have done no work with legislators," Ortiz noted.

Ethics laws in most states provide a mandatory waiting period before someone leaving public office can engage in lobbying or register as a lobbyist.

New Mexico has no "cooling off" period before former public officials can lobby legislators. The state's Government Conduct Act has a one-year waiting period before a former public official can lobby the agency where they worked.

Concerns about the revolving door between government and industry surfaced in 2016 when Ryan Flynn became executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association weeks after leaving his job as Environment Department secretary under then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.

Lujan Grisham spokeswomen Nora Meyers Sackett said Thursday the governor would support some sort of additional "cool off" period if brought forward and approved by the Legislature.

Annual review of campaign finances resumes in New Mexico -  Morgan Lee, Associated Press

After a four-year hiatus, state election regulators have resumed spot-checks on campaign finance disclosures by politicians, election candidates and political committees, with 10 accounts referred to New Mexico's fledgling State Ethics Commission and state prosecutors for possible enforcement action.

The random sampling of campaign finance disclosures from the 2020 general election cycle taps into a newly deployed electronic campaign finance reporting system at the secretary of state's office that reconciles an intricate web of campaign contributions, transfers and expenditures.

State law requires an annual sampling of 10% of accounts, triggering a review of roughly 110 accounts. Results were published Friday. Regulators attributed the hiatus in part to scarce resources.

Alleged violations included groups receiving contributions from unidentified sources and failing to register as political committees.

In addition to the 10 referrals, six committees or candidates are currently working to resolve discrepancies with the secretary of state's office. The agency focuses on education and voluntary compliance.

State Elections Director Mandy Vigil, who oversaw the campaign finance review, says politicians and committee treasurers have new opportunities and tools at their disposal to quickly clarify and reconcile possible violations of the state Campaign Reporting Act. An internet dashboard alerts possible violations in real time as reports are filled out online.

The Campaign Reporting Act includes political contribution limits, currently set at $5,200 for what candidates or committees can accept. Political committees can make contributions of up to $5,200.

The regulatory review of 2020 campaign finance records extends to political committees that engage in independent expenditures — a consequence of 2019 legislation that called for financial disclosures by some so-called dark money groups that operate on the periphery of coordinated political campaigning.

Among them, Enchantment PAC resolved an initial concern about incomplete reporting of independent expenditures. The committee is affiliated with the progressive advocacy group OLÉ.

Lingering campaign accounts linked to deceased and disgraced politicians also were flagged for discrepancies and referred for possible enforcement.

Fines for late-filed campaign finance disclosures are stacking up against former state Sen. Phil Griego and his campaign account that still holds a balance of more than $40,000. Griego completed a 15-month prison stay in 2019 linked to convictions for fraud, bribery and ethical violations after using his position as a state senator to profit from the sale of a state-owned building.

A political account for former Democratic state Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, who died in 2017, has been flagged for enforcement on discrepancies about payments.

The account, managed by a relative, disbursed $2,500 in May to the political campaign of Santa Fe mayoral candidate Joane Vigil Coppler and reported a balance of roughly $15,200. It no longer accepts contributions.

Vigil Coppler is challenging incumbent Mayor Alan Webber in a three-way race that concludes Nov. 2.

 

Biden is first president to mark Indigenous Peoples' Day Zeke Miller and Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press

President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples' Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.

The day will be observed Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. While Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country's indigenous peoples, Biden's announcement appeared to catch many by surprise.

"This was completely unexpected. Even though we've been talking about it and wanting it for so long," said Hillary Kempenich, an artist and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In 2019, she and other tribal members successfully campaigned for her town of Grand Forks, N.D., to replace Columbus Day with a day recognizing Native peoples.

"I'm kind of overwhelmed with joy," said Kempenich. She was waiting Friday afternoon for her eighth-grade daughter, who grew up challenging teachers' depictions of Columbus, to come home from school so Kempenich could share the news.

"For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures," Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples' Day proclamation. "Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples' resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society."

In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.

Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Native populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other wealth, including people to enslave.

"Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities," Biden wrote. "It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "felt strongly" about recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Asked if Biden might seek to end marking Columbus Day as a federal holiday, she replied, "I don't have any predictions at this point."

John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said the president's decision to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day was an important step.

"Big changes happen from each small step, and we hope this administration intends to continue making positive steps towards shaping a brighter future for all citizens," Echohawak said.

Biden's acknowledgment of the suffering of Native Americans also marked a break from President Donald Trump's ardent defense of "intrepid heroes" like Columbus in his 2020 proclamation of the holiday.

"Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus' legacy," Trump said at the time. "These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions."

Biden made the announcement on the same day the White House was disclosing its plans to restore territory to two sprawling national monuments in Utah that Trump had stripped of protections. One, Bears Ears, is on land that Native American tribes consider sacred.

Biden's campaign against Trump saw tribal activists mobilize to get out votes for the Democrat, in activism that tribal members credited with helping Biden win some Western states.

Arizona murder case against US Air Force airman goes to jury - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

No one saw Sasha Krause being taken from a Mennonite community in northwestern New Mexico where she worked in the publishing ministry, dominated in card games and ping pong, and where her poetry became song.

No one saw the woman with a quiet and passive demeanor killed hours away in northern Arizona, a gunshot wound to the back of the head, her wrists bound by duct tape and left in the bitter cold among the pine needles.

Prosecutor Ammon Barker argued Friday that cellphone data, receipts, financial records, repeated lies and a cover-up scheme point to Mark Gooch, a U.S. Air Force airman stationed in metropolitan Phoenix. Barker said Gooch was driven by a resentment for the faith he grew up around in Wisconsin.

"If you look at the evidence through reason, common sense and experience, you will know beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant is guilty," Barker told jurors in closing arguments.

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, argued there is reason to doubt that Gooch killed Krause. He pointed to a lack of forensic evidence, another car seen in the Mennonite community and differing opinions from ballistics experts about whether the bullet taken from Krause's skull was fired from a .22-caliber rifle that Gooch owned.

"Wrong gun, wrong bullet, wrong car," Griffen said. "How does it add up? Wrong guy. You've got to deal the objective evidence we have that creates reasonable doubt. You can't ignore reasonable doubt."

The 12-member jury began deliberations Friday afternoon.

Gooch faces life in prison if he's convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping in Krause's death. Her disappearance on Jan. 18, 2020 set off a frantic search. A camper eventually found her while gathering firewood near Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in the same clothing that Krause had on when she went missing — a gray dress, white coat and hiking shoes.

There's no indication that Krause and Gooch knew each other or that Krause put up a fight. Their families are part of a conservative group of Mennonites that dress modestly, reject most forms of technology, and practice nonviolence and nonresistance. Gooch never officially joined the church.

Both of their parents have been in the courtroom for the trial. Krause's mother grimaced and turned away as Barker displayed photos of her daughter for the jury during closing arguments. Gooch's parents have had emotional exchanges with their son's attorney.

The 27-year-old Krause was teaching in Texas where her family still lives before she moved to the Farmington Mennonite community where "Lamp + Light" are spelled out in painted white rocks on the side of a mesa. Krause worked in the publishing ministry bearing that name. One of her sisters previously lived in Farmington.

Krause was gathering items for Sunday school when she went missing.

Gooch, 22, told a sheriff's detective that he was in Farmington that day to check the times for church service because he missed the fellowship of Mennonites. His estimates on how long he spent on the trip weren't consistent with the cellphone data, financial records and surveillance video, Barker said.

Gooch didn't simply swing by the church as he said, Barker argued. He spent more than three hours near the church and detoured off the interstate for two hours in the area where Krause's body was found. Gooch later deleted the location history from his phone, bought bleach, had his car detailed asked a buddy to store his rifle, Barker said.

Gooch's phone was the only device that communicated with the same towers as Krause's phone before her signal dropped off west of Farmington, prosecutors said. Barker displayed text messages exchanges between Gooch and his brothers that he said show Gooch had a general disdain for Mennonites.

"By all accounts of what we've heard in trial was Sasha Krause was a light, a light to her family, her community, the world." Barker said. "And this defendant snuffed it out."

Griffen told jurors that Gooch voluntarily cooperated with a detective and is nonviolent. He argued that cellphone data is scientifically weak and cannot point to specific activities. He said two text messages exchanges that mentioned Mennonites since 2016 don't mean Gooch is guilty.

And he posed a question to jurors about whether someone who was trying to pull off a covert mission would have used a cellphone or credit cards that leave tracks.

"He doesn't do any of those things, he doesn't try to avoid any of those things," Griffen said. "It's all inconsistent with the state's suggestion that he's the guy."

Officials probe fatal house fire near Navajo Lake – Associated Press

Officials in northern New Mexico are investigating the death of a person was found inside a home where a fire had apparently burned out.

The person was found dead inside the home near Navajo Lake State Park in San Juan County Thursday afternoon by a relative, county officials said in a news release.

San Juan County spokesman Devin Neeley said fire crews found signs of a house fire they believed had started sometime early Thursday morning and killed the person. The fire had gone out by the time a relative checking on the person entered the home and found the person was dead.

The Farmington Daily Times reported that the county's joint fire & explosion task force would investigated the case.

New Mexico prepares to resettle 400 Afghan refugees - Associated Press

New Mexico is preparing to welcome 400 refugees who fled Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops in August, and groups are seeking volunteers and donations to help with the effort. 

About 100 of those refugees are expected to resettle in Las Cruces, according to officials with Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, the state's primary non-governmental refugee resettlement organization. The remainder are expected to relocate to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. 

Andrew Byrd, the southern New Mexico coordinator for LFS, told the Las Cruces Sun-News that Afghan refugees are expected to relocate to the southern New Mexico city by March 2022. He said the numbers for the state and each city are projected capacities submitted by his group to the federal government.

Some Afghan refugees are being sheltered at nearby military installations as they are connected with resettlement organizations.

At Holloman Air Force Base, Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Range Complex and other military installations around the country, officials have said refugees are tested for COVID-19 before arriving. Once on base, they undergo further medical screening and can apply for immigration status and work authorizations before resettlement organizations place them into communities.

The LFS Las Cruces office partnered with the Muslim Student Association at New Mexico State University to help refugees once they arrive. The groups have asked for volunteers who can serve as translators and to transport donated goods. They've also asked people to donate money, furniture, electronics such as phones and laptops and school supplies.

Explainer: What's behind the looming Hollywood strike? - By Lindsey Bahr AP Film Writer

A major Hollywood strike could be on the horizon for some 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers in the entertainment industry. Over the weekend, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IASTE) overwhelmingly voted in favor of authorizing a nationwide strike for the first time in its history.

Here we look at who is involved, what they're asking for and what's at stake.

WHAT IS THE IATSE?

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (or IATSE for short, pronounced eye-AHT'-see) is a 128-year-old union representing over 150,000 artists, craftspeople and technicians in the entertainment industry in the United States and Canada. Comprised of cinematographers, costumers, set designers, script supervisors, hair and makeup artists, animators, stagehands and many, many more, the IATSE represents essentially everyone who works in any form of entertainment (including movies, television, theater, concerts, trade shows and broadcasting) who isn't an actor, director, producer or screenwriter.

WHY ARE THEY IN THE NEWS?

The three-year contracts that cover about 60,000 of the union's members — one that primarily covers film and TV production in Los Angeles and Hollywood and another that covers other production hubs including New Mexico and Georgia — expired in July. For the past four months the union has been negotiating new terms with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Those discussions fell apart on Sept. 20. The IATSE says that the AMPTP have failed to address their biggest workplace problems, and membership voted overwhelmingly to give the organization's president, Matthew D. Loeb, the ability to authorize a strike.

WHAT ARE THE WORKPLACE PROBLEMS?

The IATSE says its members are subjected to excessive working hours, unlivable wages for the lowest paid crafts and failure to provide reasonable rest, including meal breaks and time off between marathon working days and weekend work. Further, they say that workers on some "new media" streaming projects get paid even less. The Instagram account @ia_stories has been sharing anonymous accounts of some harrowing personal workplace stories and the effects of the excessively long hours on everything from personal safety to mental health.

WAIT, WHAT'S THE AMPTP?

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is a group that represents hundreds of entertainment companies, including the major Hollywood studios, streaming services and production companies, and negotiates essentially all industry-wide guild and union contracts.

WHY ARE THE STREAMERS PAYING WORKERS LESS THAN TRADITIONAL STUDIOS?

In 2009, the IATSE and studios mutually agreed that new media productions required greater "flexibility" because the medium was not yet economically viable. That has changed in a big way, but the expectation of flexibility from crews has not. They feel they are being taken advantage of while streaming budgets and profits have reached blockbuster levels.

WHO ELSE SUPPORTS THE IATSE DEMANDS?

Social media support has been significant and many prominent people in the film industry have spoken out in support of the crews, like Octavia Spencer, Mindy Kaling, Jane Fonda and Katherine Heigl. On Monday, the Directors Guild of America issued a statement of solidarity too, signed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Barry Jenkins, Ron Howard, Ava DuVernay and Lesli Linka Glatter. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and 118 Senators and members of the House have also sent a letter to the AMPTP urging good faith negotiations.

IS A STRIKE INEVITABLE?

No, and leadership on both sides have said they would like to avoid it if possible. On Tuesday, the IATSE and the AMPTP resumed negotiations. 

WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY DO STRIKE?

With 60,000 workers covered under the expired agreements, most productions would have to shut down in the U.S., including network shows and Netflix productions. But not all are affected: The IATSE contracts for "pay tv," including HBO, Showtime, Starz, Cinemax and BET, don't expire until Dec. 31, 2022 so those will keep going. Same goes for commercials and low budget productions, which also have different agreements.

As far as long-term consequences, it all depends on how long the strike goes on. The 100-day 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, which also came about when contracts failed to address "new media" realities and loopholes, resulted in scuttled projects, shortened seasons of popular television shows and an influx of reality shows to fill the schedule gaps. Most networks and streamers have content reserves to fill the gaps for a bit.

WHAT NOW?

We wait.

Navajo Nation reports 49 more COVID-19 cases, 5 more deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 49 more COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths.

It was the second consecutive day that the tribe reported at least one coronavirus-related death after going six days in a row with no additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 34,309 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll now is 1,453.

Navajo officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who did not show proof of vaccination by the deadline must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

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

Arizona panel votes to reduce utility's potential profits - Associated Press

Arizona utility regulators are moving to reduce the potential profits of the state's largest electricity provider as part of a pending rate-setting case that also includes consideration of two major coal-related issues.

On the final day of a three-day special hearing, the Arizona Corporation Commission voted 4-1 on Wednesday to reduce Arizona Public Service's authorized profit on its expenses to 8.7%, down from 10%. 

The regulatory panel sets rates and decides certain operational matters related to rates for Arizona's investor-owned utilities.

Commissioner Justin Olson said his proposal for an 8.7% return on equity was an appropriate response to the utility's performance on customer issues since its last rate case in 2016.

Those issues notably included the company providing customers with a rate comparison tool that provided misleading results, Olson noted.

APS wanted to keep to a 10% profit margin, with CEO Jeff Guldner unsuccessfully arguing the 8.7% return would make it hard for APS to borrow for system improvements to handle the state's growth and the utility's transition to renewable energy.

Guldner said he was working to change the utility's culture and direction and wished he could alter its past. "I wish I could change it, but I can't," Guldner said.

The commission on Wednesday left unresolved whether it will let APS expand its rate base to include about $450 million of pollution-control upgrades to its coal-fired Four Corners Generating Station near Fruitland, New Mexico.

APS recently announced it plans to reduce the plant's capacity by fall 2023 and retire it by 2031, years earlier than originally planned.

An administrative law judge had recommended to the commission that the upgrade costs not be charged to ratepayers, but APS said the spending was prudent because the plant is useful and that getting power from an alternative source would be costly. 

The commission voted to hold additional hearings on the Four Corners issue and on APS' proposal to use ratepayer money to pay $100 million to Navajo Nation communities affected by closures of coal plants, mainly the Navajo Generating Station near Page.

Olson and commission lawyers questioned whether ratepayer money could legally be used for payments to non-customers and non-Arizona residents. The Navajo Nation, which is not in APS' service territory, includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The commission voted 3-2 to keep the payment issue open to address additional questions, including the proposal's legality, despite at least one commission wanting to offer assistance immediately.

"This commission has failed coal-impacted communities," Commissioner Sandra Kennedy said. "There will be highly concentrated pain on those who need it and deserve it the least."

Guldner said during the hearing that APS had committed $25 million from its parent company's shareholders to help the communities transition to new industries. The money will come from profits, not ratepayers, he said.

The power plant issues and the utility's return on equity are parts of an overall rate case that the commission will decide later.

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