MON: Last-Minute Cannabis License Prompts Calls For Investigation, + More

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Last-Minute Cannabis License Prompts Calls For Investigation - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials in late June briefly opened a window to submit applications for lucrative licenses for pot production and then approved the only application received, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

The Health Department's handling of the process that resulted in the license being issued June 28 to Albuquerque-based GH LLC after minimal public notice has prompted allegations of favoritism and calls for an investigation.

"In my opinion, this was a dirty affair," said Willie Ford, managing director of Reynold Greenleaf & Associates, a consulting firm for cannabis businesses. "This was obviously somebody making it happen for somebody else."

The state had not allowed producers to apply for licenses in the previous six years, as the new Cannabis Control Division of the state Regulation and Licensing Department prepared to take oversight of licensing of the cannabis industry on June 29. New Mexico this year legalized recreational marijuana and those sales will start by April 1, 2022.

The Health Department's June 23 website posting of "Medical Cannabis Licensed Non-Profit Producer Application Instructions" didn't explicitly say the department was accepting new applications, though an online application form gave a June 28 deadline, the New Mexican reported.

Documents obtained under a public records request showed that GH LLC submitted a 713-page application for a nonprofit medical cannabis producer license June 25 and that two senior Health Department officials inspected the company's facilities two days later on a Sunday, one day before the license was granted.

GH LLC "submitted an application like everyone else," said company founder Vance Dugger, who is also CEO or founder of three road service and towing companies.

Health Department spokeswoman Baylee Rawson told the New Mexican in an email that the agency "often posts announcements through the website" to inform license holders and patients about program updates.

Rawson said it wasn't unusual for department officials to work on weekends and that the department had worked for months "on opening licenses for additional licensees to help ensure patients had additional options for obtaining their medication."

Rawson did not answer follow-up questions on whether the department had disclosed it was working on such an effort, the New Mexican reported.

Ford and others in the industry said the application opening appears to have been kept secret deliberately.

"This new licensee process has certainly ignited a fair amount of distrust, raised eyebrows and questions," said Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health, the state's largest medical cannabis operation.

"There are a number of good folks who have invested time, effort and resources while not knowing there might have been an express lane," he said.

"This is a lottery ticket," Rodriguez said, adding people in the industry are referring to the license approval as "weedgate."

Suspended Professor Advocates For 2020 Election Audits - Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

A New Mexico State University professor has been traveling to advocate for audits of the 2020 presidential election amid a paid suspension for rejecting coronavirus health mandates from the school. 

The Las Cruces Sun News reports that the public university on Aug. 27 extended its emergency suspension of professor David Clements. Several complaints were received from students after Clements rejected campus mask and vaccination mandates.

The university requires students and staff to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or provide test results for the virus on a weekly basis. Its indoor mask mandate mirrors the New Mexico public health orders.

Through a social media account on the Telegram platform, Clements has documented his travels to advocate for further audits of the 2020 presidential election, while alleging widespread election fraud and referring to former President Donald Trump as "the real president."

Clements could not be reached for comment on Sunday. The Sun News reported that he declined to speak with the newspaper unless it was for an unedited video interview with a required reading list in advance.

Clements indicated through Telegram postings that he is confronting possible disbarment as an attorney in New Mexico and has been blocked from service by some commercial airlines.

Trump's allegations of widespread election fraud have been dismissed by judges and refuted by state election officials, an arm of his own administration's Homeland Security Department and his own attorney general.

New Mexico Reports 20 More COVID-19 Deaths, Most In Months - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

New Mexico's pandemic death roll rose by 20 on Friday, the largest reported single-day increase in months.

The state on Friday also reported 885 additional confirmed cases — the largest one-day increase in a week and substantially higher than the recent daily average — as the pandemic totals increased to 239,886 cases and 4,605 deaths.

Of the 20 additional deaths, 18 occurred in the last month and the other two occurred more than 30 days earlier.

The last time the state's daily report on additional deaths was larger was in May when the total jumped by 114 after an audit, and the state before that hadn't reported a daily increase of 20 or more since February, the Albuquerque Journal  reported.

Health care officials have expressed concern about New Mexico's hospital capacity during the current surge as COVID-19 patients contribute to an already-high patient load due to other illnesses.

The 20 fatalities were adults ranging in age from their 40s to their 90s.


When Does Virus Force Closure? New Mexico Schools Now Decide - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

State education officials largely ceded control over if and when schools need to shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and they relaxed rules that would have had schools close their doors this semester.

Until last month, schools had to send students into remote learning if there were four positive COVID-19 tests on campus within two weeks.

Now there's no set number or percentage of COVID-19 cases that trigger a school to shut down, according to statements from the education and health departments. 

Looser health rules are possible in part because of widespread teacher vaccinations. Around half of minors who are eligible for the vaccine, ages 12-17, have also gotten their shots. 

Elementary students aren't yet eligible for vaccines, and a handful are ending up in the hospital. But their illness is less severe. New Mexico Department of Health officials said this week that 4 children have died from COVID-19 during the entire pandemic.

As of Thursday, there were 10 schools with four cases and one with five.

Four of the schools are in Hobbs, in eastern New Mexico. Thanks to the relaxed rules, they can stay open.

"The longer we stay open, the more confidence that creates in parents by saying I'm not going to have this yo-yo effect of going back and forth, back and forth," Superintendent Gene Strickland said.

Stone Elementary, in Hobbs, has 5 cases listed. But the numbers can be deceptive: they are all members of the same family, Strickland said. And a small number of tests is more significant in a smaller school than a larger one.

A more important metric going forward will be the percentage of staff and students who test positive. Stone's positive rate is 2%, according to a dashboard updated by the school daily.

Other schools do not provide as much public information, and it's difficult to track school closures because the Public Education Department no longer releases a weekly list. 

Siembra Leadership High School shut down all in-person classes at the charter school last month because pf an outbreak, according to an email sent to parents on Aug. 25. The closure came as the number of in-person students fell from 130 to around 35 because of positive tests and close-contact quarantines. Representatives for the school did not immediately respond to phone calls and messages left Friday.

The Public Education Department is requiring school districts to write and release plans describing what they will do if the infection rate in a school building goes up, including a plan for hitting 5%.

It would be up to the Department of Health "to determine when an outbreak was of sufficient concern to require a school building to close," Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said. "We are allowing districts a much greater deal of self determination in creating local plans that can both address rising cases and keep students and staff safe and in school."

Strickland says Hobbs' plan has been submitted, but not yet approved. He says if a school hits 3% or 5% infection rate, the district would enact other measures first, like ending group gatherings, and returning to daily student symptom screenings.

Ruling: Home Doesn't Have To Be Finished To Be Burglarized

Just because a house under construction isn't finished and lacks key features doesn't mean it's not a dwelling under the New Mexico law that makes burglary of a residence a crime, an appellate court ruled for the first time. 

The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in a case from San Juan County, upholding Albert Dell Shelby's conviction for residential burglary of a home that was enclosed and had a complete exterior but had an incomplete interior and lacked utility services.

Shelby's appeal argued that there wasn't sufficient evidence that the property was actually used as living quarters by its owner, an oil industry worker who stayed there part time when not working out of state.

The Court of Appeals ruling concluded that the unfinished state of the home didn't determine its status and that there was enough evidence that it provided its owner with habitation "in a regular, yet intermittent, way."

New Mexico Cattle Ranchers Pummeled By Western Drought - By Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican 

State Sen. Pat Woods saw a lot of it over this past year — cows culled from a herd and sent to the slaughterhouse because their owners couldn't afford to feed them anymore.

"It was awfully dry," said the longtime rancher and Republican lawmaker from Broadview, a ranching community on New Mexico's eastern plains. "They were forecasting it would never rain again and it was going to be such a tough year that a lot of ranchers didn't want to put their money into the cow."

The drought strikes again — and its effects are having a significant impact on the state's cattle ranching industry, according to a new report from the New Mexico State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences.

The report, which was presented to Woods and other members of legislative panel, laid out in stark terms how drought conditions are hurting ranchers.

Some climate experts have called the drought enveloping the southwestern part of the country one of the worst in centuries. About two-thirds of the state has been experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions in recent weeks. And that was after a healthy monsoon season in many areas.

Among other outcomes, drought conditions decrease animal growth, diminish forage opportunities for livestock, increase the cost of production and decrease calf prices, the report says.

That in turn leads to extra costs when it comes to restocking herds that have been thinned out.

Calling the situation "the perfect storm of drought and pandemic," Loren Patterson, president-elect of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the industry is reeling under "all of the above" pointed out in the study.

"It has a pretty big impact on us economically," he said by phone following the presentation of the report. "It raises our cost of production. Not only do we have to reduce cow numbers, we have to supplement more for the cows we keep."

Economically speaking, the cattle industry is a meaty, if not mighty, force. A 2019 report, from the environmental publication Sustainability, said its role in the state economy is "substantial." Using 2012 data, it said about 44 percent of revenue from the state's agricultural industry is derived from cattle.

Patterson said while those who work in agriculture are accustomed to dealing with problems brought on by longterm drought, "it's always a little tougher than you prepare for."

Ultimately, consumers will feel the brunt of the impacts at meat markets, grocery stores and restaurants, Patterson said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index reports the price of beef and veal went up 6.5 percent between July 2020 and July 2021 — though it does not provide an explanation for the increase.

And there may be less beef to go around. Patterson said ranchers who have thinned herds are now trying to restock them by keeping female cows so they birth calves. Those cows are not headed into the food supply chain anytime soon. That can affect the beef supply for up to three years, he said.

Restocking is expensive, the report says.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, who is a rancher and a member of the interim committee, said she has experienced that cost firsthand — noting in an interview she had to sell off more than 100 of her herd at the end of 2019 because of the effects drought had on her operation.

Now, trying to restock, she finds cows once worth $700 going for nearly twice that price as demand outpaces supply.

"That's a scarcity of a commodity that we as ranchers need," Ezzell said.

Carla Gomez, a small cattle rancher in Mora County, said the drought has had a "devastating" impact on fellow ranchers in her area, despite a season of really good rainfall.

"Here in Mora, a lot of people who have had cattle in the past don't anymore because of this continual drought cycle," she said. "People sell their cattle … some people build the herd back up and some don't."

The report offers a number of recommendations for easing the drought's effects, such as weaning and selling offspring early to reduce grazing fees; providing supplements to replace milk and grass for feed purposes; culling both old and young "low productivity" animals out of herds; keeping animals in a pen to feed them stored-up food products.

Some of these options are expensive, the report noted.

While Patterson said these options will "absolutely" help, selling off livestock or sending them to the slaughterhouse is "economically devastating" for cattle ranchers.

And, he said, it will cost the state and local counties in tax revenue because cattle ranchers "pay taxes on every head of livestock, so obviously the counties and state will realize less taxes."

Judge Refines Evidence For Trial Of Airman Accused Of Murder - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Prosecutors will be allowed to present evidence at an upcoming trial that they say shows a U.S. Air Force airman charged in the death of Mennonite woman had disdain for the religious group, a judge ruled Friday.

The evidence includes text message exchanges between defendant Mark Gooch and his brothers where he talked about surveilling Mennonite churches in metropolitan Phoenix and praising one for ticketing a Mennonite during a traffic stop.

Gooch is charged in the shooting death of Sasha Krause, who lived in a Mennonite community outside Farmington, New Mexico. Krause disappeared while gathering materials for a Sunday school course in January 2020, and her body was found outside Flagstaff more than a month later.

Jury selection begins Sept. 21 for the three-week trial. Gooch faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and other charges.

Coconino County Superior Court Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols wrapped up a two-day hearing Friday on requests to refine the evidence. She said the text messages sent before and after Krause's death point to motive and are more relevant than prejudicial.

"It's for the jury to decide if the defendant had some sort of religious bias toward Mennonites," she said.

Brown Nichols also allowed evidence from cell phone data that prosecutors say showed Gooch returned to the forested area where Krause's body was left before authorities discovered it. 

"The court is persuaded by the state's argument that this purported evidence does connect him to the scene of the murder," the judge said. 

Gooch attended the hearing virtually from jail.

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, had argued that the text message exchanges were among thousands that Gooch sent and received, and were the only two that mentioned Mennonites. Gooch didn't initiate the exchange with the brother who was a state trooper in Virginia, he said. He simply responded in a boisterous, pile-on fashion, well after Krause's death, Griffen argued.

Gooch used words like "surveillance" in the exchange with another brother because he has a military background, Griffen said. And Gooch's text that the older people he saw weren't like the Mennonites he grew up with means Gooch is a young guy, and that's not his crowd, Griffen said. 

"The state is reading so much more into that," Griffen argued.

Gooch told authorities he drove to the churches because he was looking for fellowship, according to public records. But the prosecutor, Ammon Barker, said neither of the text exchanges suggest Gooch was looking for a nice, Mennonite church.

"The state is not saying because he's surveilling people, he's a murderer or has a character trait for being a murderer," Barker said. "It shows motive."

Gooch and Krause didn't know each other but both grew up in large families who were part of the Mennonite church. Gooch never became a church member. Krause became part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts, and men were plain clothing, her community has said.

Brown Nichols earlier rejected a request to admit evidence that Gooch might have targeted Mennonites in burglaries as a teenager in Wisconsin. A childhood friend of Gooch testified Thursday that he didn't recall Gooch saying that he disliked Mennonites.

Brown Nichols has yet to rule on a defense request to determine whether statements that Gooch made to a detective during an interview at Luke Air Force Base where he was stationed in metropolitan Phoenix were lawfully obtained. 

US Flag, Sewn At POW Camp, Settles At Smithsonian - By Ollie Reed Jr., Albuquerque Journal 

Its beginnings were humble, but proud and brave too.

An American flag, assembled secretively and at risk in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, was fashioned out of pieces of red blanket, white bedsheets and blue denim dungarees.

For 25 years, it was stored in a closet at the Albuquerque home of Joseph O. "Jose" Quintero, the American soldier responsible for its creation.

Then for nearly 30 years it traveled with Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca to every U.S. state and territory and seven continents, as Baca told the story of the flag and the brave men who battled the Japanese in the Philippines before falling to the enemy during World War II.

Now this flag, its pieces once wrapped in canvas and buried in dirt to keep it concealed from Japanese guards, is on the way to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

"One of the first places my father gave his speech about the flag was at the Smithsonian," said retired Col. Brian Baca, son of Lt. Gen. Baca, who died in September 2020.

"He said then he would give the flag to the Smithsonian, and my father's word was his bond."

Brian Baca, who is retired from the Army National Guard, and his sister, Karen Nielsen, who is retired from the Air Force National Guard, went to a New Mexico National Guard Strategic Planning Conference recently at Albuquerque's Hotel Andaluz to tell the flag's story to soldiers and airmen.

"We couldn't let the flag leave New Mexico without doing something like this," Brian Baca said. "It was awesome to be telling this story for the last time in front of these soldiers."

The flag was scheduled to be handed off to Smithsonian representatives in Albuquerque in September. There are plans to make a replica of the flag, which would be kept in New Mexico.

Quintero died in Albuquerque at age 82 in November 2000. According to his obituary, he was born in Fort Worth, the oldest of nine children. He moved to Albuquerque in 1946 and worked as a research technician with the federal government.

During World War II, he served as a corporal with the U.S. Army's 60th Coastal Artillery Regiment on Corregidor. Like the many New Mexicans serving in the 200th and 515th Coastal Artillery regiments in Bataan and Corregidor, the men in the 60th were overcome by the Japanese in the spring of 1942.

"They held back the Japanese for months," Brian Baca said. "They were finally defeated by disease, hunger and lack of ammunition."

Many of the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor who survived the fighting, the forced marches after their defeat and initial imprisonment in the Philippines, were put on ships and transported, in hellish conditions, to prisoner-of-war and labor camps in Japan. Quintero was among those sent to Japan.

It took Quintero more than a year to make the flag. His fellow prisoners helped.

A Canadian soldier, a double amputee who had access to a sewing machine because he was tasked with mending the uniforms of Japanese soldiers, put the flag together.

"Jose wanted to make the flag as a tribute to those who were dying around him," Brian Baca said. "But if the Japanese had found it, it could have been death for not only him, but also for his comrades. Jose did not even know how many states were in the union or the significance of the 13 stripes. He had to ask an officer."

In the early '90s, Gen. Baca was speaking to a group of Bataan and Corregidor survivors at an Albuquerque hotel, when Jose Quintero approached him with his flag, told Baca its story and entrusted the general with it. Baca promised to tell the story of the flag's incredible origin and the men it honored wherever he went.

"He told the story in Russia," Brian Baca said. "One of the last places he visited was the Philippines."

Nielsen said her father told the story to all his children and grandchildren. She said it's difficult to give the flag up.

"It feels very sad to me," she said. "It's like letting part of my father go. It's very emotional."

But her brother believes the flag needs to go to the Smithsonian, so its story can live on.

"Memories are what we have now," Brian said.

S. Carolina, Georgia Destinations Top Travel + Leisure List - Associated Press

Two of the South's most picturesque destinations have topped a major travel magazine's list of best U.S. cities. 

Readers of Travel + Leisure ranked Charleston, South Carolina, No. 1 on its list of the top 15 cities in the U.S. Coming in at No. 3 was a coastal Southern neighbor — Savannah, Georgia. 

The magazine wrote that Southern cities "continue to steal the hearts" of its readers "thanks to the wonderful mix of warm hospitality, approachable size, excellent food, and striking architecture."

It's the ninth straight year that Charleston has led Travel + Leisure's best U.S. cities list. The city that beat out Savannah for No. 2 on this year's list was Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The list is featured in the magazine's October issue.