MON: State Ranks 49th In Child Wellbeing, Ex-State Tax Chief Found Guilty Of Embezzlement, + More

Jun 21, 2021


New Mexico Ranks 49th In Child Wellbeing, An Improvement - By Cedar Attanasio, Report For America / Associated Press

New Mexico ranked 49th in a report released Monday measuring child wellbeing based on data gathered before the pandemic.

That's an improvement over last year when the state ranked 50th among U.S. states.

"It's encouraging to see that child wellbeing in New Mexico was improving before the pandemic hit," said James Jimenez, executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children, which partners with the foundation.

He's cautiously optimistic that state policies "helped offset some of the health and financial problems caused by the pandemic."

The annual Kids Count report tracks 16 metrics of children's access to education, health, economic and social stability at home. It was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Monday.

It ranks New Mexico at or near the bottom on education, economics, and "family and community," which tracks rates of single-parent homes, teen birth rates and whether or not the head of household has a high school degree.

One in five New Mexico children live in an area where 30% of the population is at or below the federal poverty line. Nationally, only one in 10 children live in high-poverty areas, according to the report.

The report ranks the state 37th in child health, with kids having average access to insurance (94%) and only slightly higher than average obesity (32%).

New Mexico City On Pace To Smash Homicide Record - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Albuquerque detectives on Monday were investigating the city's latest string of deaths — three more cases that could push New Mexico's largest city closer to smashing a previous homicide record.

Police Chief Harold Medina was scheduled to host a virtual town hall on social media Monday evening to discuss the city's crime trends and answer questions submitted by residents.

While some cities around the U.S. have seen an increase in homicides over the last year, Albuquerque has been grappling with high homicide rates even before the pandemic. It set a record in 2019, when it had 80 killings for the entire year.

If the latest cases are classified as homicides, that will push the city's total so far this year to more than 60.

The city's reputation when it comes to crime is a big challenge for Democratic Mayor Tim Keller in his re-election bid. While some community groups are frustrated by the looming stigma, Keller's administration argues that it has been trying new tactics that include using acoustic surveillance to combat gun violence and the creation of a new community safety department.

Medina said earlier this year that while violent crime is up, property crime has decreased.

The Albuquerque police officers' union earlier this year mounted a $70,000 campaign aimed at encouraging residents to pressure the city's elected leaders to focus more on fighting crime rather than spending millions of dollars on oversight related to a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

Navajo Nation Reports No New COVID-19 Cases And No DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported no new cases of COVID-19 and no additional deaths.

Tribal health officials said the sprawling reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah has seen 30,967 known cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll remains at 1,346.

Last Friday, the Navajo Department of Health lifted the tribe's stay-at-home order, easing restrictions to allow in-person meetings and ceremonies of 25 people or fewer and drive-thru gatherings of up to 100 vehicles.

Face masks are required by everyone on the Navajo Nation, whether or not they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Trump Cowboy Seeks 2nd Act In Politics After Capitol Breach - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

He rodeoed in a Buffalo Bill-style Wild West show, carried his message on horseback from the Holy Land to Times Square and was invited to the White House to meet the president.

But luck may have run out for this cowboy pastor who rode to national political fame by embracing President Donald Trump with a series of horseback caravans and came crashing down with a defiant stand Jan. 6 against President Joe Biden's election.

Today, Couy Griffin is divorced, disparaged by family and confronts a political recall drive, a state corruption investigation and federal charges.

And yet he remains determined. He sees himself as governor one day.

The first-term county commissioner forged a group of rodeo acquaintances in 2019 into a promotional Cowboys for Trump posse to spread his conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.

Trump's election defeat has left the 47-year-old father in a lonely fight for his political life after preaching to crowds at the U.S. Capitol siege, promising to take his guns to Biden's inauguration and landing in jail for over a week.

In Washington, prosecutors unveiled photographs of Griffin climbing a toppled fence and another barrier to access the Capitol steps.

Public defense attorneys say a close reading of the law shows the area wasn't off limits. They say Griffin didn't partake in violence and was well within his free speech rights as he voiced election grievances and attempted to lead a prayer with a bullhorn.

Griffin is one of thousands of Trump loyalists in public office who are charting an uncertain future ahead of the 2022 election cycle. He's part of a smaller cadre who flirted with insurrection on Trump's behalf and may still pay a high price. In all, more than 400 people were charged in the insurrection, which left five dead and dozens of officers injured.

Griffin has been rebuked by some Republicans over his racial invective. He's also been suspended from Facebook and banished from Native American lands in his district as he contests charges of breaking into the Capitol grounds and disrupting Congress that could carry a one-year sentence. A recall effort is underway, amid a bevy of lawsuits.

Still, loyal constituents are easy to come by in a rural county steeped in the anti-establishment, pro-gun culture that dominates southern New Mexico.

"He means no malice on anybody," said George Seeds, outside the New Heart Cowboy Church in Alamogordo where Griffin once served as pastor. "His concern is the direction of this country, where it's going."

Defiance of federal government and its oversight of public lands are staples of politics in Otero County, which spans an area three times the size of Delaware, from the dunes of White Sands National Park to the peaks of the Lincoln National Forest.

Banned from Washington until testimony or trial, Griffin has returned to the routines of home in a tidy double-wide trailer in Tularosa, working most days as a stone mason. A donkey named Henry brays from a side yard.

In a conversation with The Associated Press, Griffin says he learned to love the spotlight during five years as an expert rodeo hand in a Wild West show at Paris' Disneyland park.

His rides with Cowboys for Trump through numerous states were a reprise of proselytizing trips he made from Ireland to Jerusalem, before social media, to hand out the Gospel of John.

The group captivated the public imagination with its first outing, a 2019 flag-waving ride down the shore of the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery.

Ramie Harper, a 67-year-old former bull rider from Fruitland, took a break from making custom hats to join the caravan.

"They loved it," Harper said. "We was on 'Fox & Friends' the next day."

With calls for an independent investigation of the Capitol siege blocked by Senate Republicans, Griffin is out on bail and speaking his mind.

He's an advocate for stricter state voting laws and a die-hard opponent of COVID-19 restrictions who says "hell no" to taking the vaccine.

Griffin still wears a monogrammed Cowboys for Trump shirt to commission meetings. But his allegiance to Trump has wavered.

"I don't have the same confidence in him," Griffin said. "Whenever you say, 'China stole the election. ... The election was stolen from me,' and then you just walk away? That's hard for me to accept."

He says his obsession with politics has taken a toll, contributing to his 2019 divorce and tensions with relatives.

"I've had my own family say some pretty nasty things," Griffin said. "It's been real hard."

With Trump or without, Griffin still ascribes to unsubstantiated claims of massive 2020 election fraud.

He yearns to someday run for governor even though state GOP leaders are openly scornful and Democrats hold every statewide elected office.

More immediately, Griffin is eyeing an open 2022 sheriff's race in another New Mexico county where he grew up. His grandfather Wee Griffin held the Catron County post from 1963 to 1966. Trump won there in 2020 with 73% of the vote.

Griffin has cast Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as his political nemesis on issues of gun control, abortion and pandemic restrictions. He'd like to reinvent the sheriff's role as a brake on the governor's power.

"The county sheriff's sole duty and responsibility is to protect our individual rights," he said. "You think that the governor hates me as a county commissioner — put a gun and a badge on me, and we'll see."

Jeff Swanson, chairman of the Otero County Democratic Party, says Griffin's divisive remarks hinder county efforts to secure state infrastructure spending, and he has engaged in intimidation by recording Cowboys for Trump videos from his office with a shotgun within view.

In Alamogordo, Griffin's rhetoric on race has steeled the determination of opponents who want him out of office.

Griffin delivered a scathing rebuke last year as the NFL announced game-opening renditions of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black national anthem.

"They want to destroy our country," Griffin said in a video monologue. "I got a better idea. Why don't you go back to Africa and form your little football teams. ... You can play on an old beat-out dirt lot."

Everette Brown, a Marine veteran and information technology specialist at Holloman Air Force Base who is Black, said that comment shows politics have changed Griffin, whom he once respected.

"I'm a big boy. I can handle a lot. And that was one that got me," said Brown, part of a committee seeking to recall Griffin.

For now, Griffin has halted the petition with an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which hasn't decided whether to intervene. Meanwhile, state prosecutors are investigating allegations Griffin used his office in coordination with Cowboys for Trump for personal financial gain, and signed a child-support check to his ex-wife from his Cowboys for Trump account.

Griffin has acknowledged using the county building for promotional videos but said he never claimed they were affiliated with Otero County. He also says Cowboys for Trump is a for-profit company, not a political group.

Donnie Reynolds, a 51-year-old sales associate at an Alamogordo hardware store, says Griffin is being targeted for ties to Trump.

He says Griffin is right about lots of things, like the need for a border wall.

"They're going find out he didn't have anything to do with these types of things," he said. "They're going to eat some crow."

Arizona Feeling Brunt Of Wildfire Activity Across US West - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Dozens of wildfires were burning in hot, dry conditions across the U.S. West, including a blaze touched off by lightning that was moving toward northern Arizona's largest city.

The mountainous city of Flagstaff was shrouded in smoke Monday. The national forest surrounding it announced a full closure set to begin later this week — the first time that has happened since 2006.

Intense heat that has hampered firefighting efforts more broadly was expected to moderate in the coming days. But, the National Weather Service noted it could bring uncertainty for fire crews.

"The humidity and the possibility of some scattered rainfall is a good thing," said meteorologist Andrew Taylor. "The lightning is not a good thing."

In California, firefighters still faced the difficult task of trying to contain a large forest fire in rugged coastal mountains south of Big Sur that forced the evacuation of a Buddhist monastery and nearby campground.

In New Mexico, lightning-sparked blazes have been scorching the southern part of the state where a large portion of the Gila Wilderness remains closed, and fire officials are closely watching the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

More land has burned across Arizona so far to date with new wildfire starts quickly shifting resources. While humans are to blame for an overwhelming majority of wildfires, lightning started a 31-square mile (80-square kilometer) blaze west of Sedona that was moving toward Flagstaff.

A top-tier management team had been ordered to oversee the blaze that's burning in grass, juniper, chaparral and ponderosa pine.

Some campers already evacuated, and residents of rural areas have been told to prepare to evacuate on a moment's notice, said Coconino County sheriff's spokesman Jon Paxton.

If the fire continues its northeastern push, hundreds of people in Flagstaff — a college city about two hours north of Phoenix — also could be impacted, Paxton said.

Fire officials were mapping out a plan to starve the so-called Rafael Fire of fuel as it moves through rugged terrain, canyons and wilderness, said fire information officer Dolores Garcia. As of Monday, it was moving parallel to Interstate 40 along the Coconino and Yavapai county lines.

The 2,812-square-mile (7,283-square-kilometer) Coconino National Forest, a popular area for camping, hiking, boating and fishing, is shutting down Wednesday because of concerns it won't have enough resources to respond to any future wildfires.

The forest has only partially closed in recent years because of wildfire danger.

"We have limited resources, and we're tapped right now," said forest spokesman Brady Smith.

Arizona is at the highest level of preparedness for wildfires. A large wildfire burning near Superior, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Phoenix, was nearly 70% contained Monday. The 282-square-mile (730-square-kilometer) blaze was human-caused.

Residents near the small communities of Pine and Strawberry remain evacuated because of another wildfire that has hopped among treetops, with flames jumping ahead carried by wind. Some local roads also were closed.

Firefighting crews have yet to contain any of the wildfire's perimeter. The lightning-sparked blaze was estimated at 51 square miles (132 square kilometers) Monday and is being managed by a top-tier team.

In Utah, several wildfires were burning in bone-dry conditions. The largest near the small town of Enterprise in southern Utah forced evacuations over the weekend. But homeowners were allowed to return as containment reached 50%. 

Jury: Ex-New Mexico State Tax Chief Guilty Of Embezzlement – Associated Press

A jury has found New Mexico's former state tax chief guilty of embezzling more than $25,000 from a trucking business while she served in former Gov. Susana Martinez’s cabinet.

Demesia Padilla, 61, could face up to 18 years in prison when she is sentenced for her conviction Friday on embezzlement and intent to defraud charges. A sentencing date was not immediately set.

Padilla’s attorney, Paul J. Kennedy, did not immediately respond Saturday to a telephone message.

Jurors deliberated about two hours before returning the verdicts, state attorney general’s office spokesman Matt Baca, told The New Mexican of Santa Fe.

Prosecutors told the jury that between 2011 and 2013, while she was cabinet secretary, Padilla linked her personal credit card to the checking account of a Bernalillo business.

Padilla was an original member of Martinez's Republican administration. She resigned in late 2016 during a state attorney general’s office investigation of her business dealings.

Padilla maintained that she stopped working for the company when she became Taxation and Revenue secretary, but investigators said her husband signed off on the trucking company’s tax returns for several more years.

Padilla was initially charged with embezzlement and public corruption, but a state judge in Santa Fe dismissed five ethics charges in 2019, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

New Mexico Jail Guard Hospitalized In Texas With Stab Wounds – Associated Press

A New Mexico jail guard who was stabbed by a detainee was hospitalized in El Paso, Texas, and sheriff’s deputies were investigating, a county official said.

The name and condition of the officer were not immediately made public following the late Thursday incident during medication distribution in a medium custody unit at the Doña Ana County Detention Center.

He was being treated at University Medical Center in El Paso, county spokeswoman Luce Rubio said in a statement.

The detainee was identified as a 28-year-old Las Cruces man who was arrested in July 2020 in Los Lunas and was being held without bond awaiting trial on charges related to a shooting at a house.

It was not immediately clear what additional charges he could face in the alleged attack.

Navajo Nation Reports 6 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported six new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths.

Tribal health officials released the latest numbers on Saturday.

The sprawling reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah has seen at 30,965 known cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began and 1,346 deaths.

The Navajo Department of Health on Friday lifted the nation’s stay-at-home order, easing restrictions to allow in-person meetings and ceremonies of 25 people or fewer and drive-thru gatherings of up to 100 vehicles.

Face masks are required by everyone, whether or not they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Friday vetoed a resolution to reopen parks on the nation, including parks that encompass Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon, to 100% capacity.

Nez and Lizer said in a letter to the Navajo Nation Council that the nation needs to be careful with variants of the disease still circulating.

They said that rather than opening the parks to full capacity, opening to 50% capacity would allow officials to monitor the impacts of reopening and gradually increase capacity from there.

Southern New Mexico Officials See Uptick In Pets Surrendered – Nicole Maxwell, Alamogordo Daily News, Associated Press

In 2020, Alamogordo Animal Control took in 1,260 animals, saw 563 adopted and euthanized 36 animals, according to Alamogordo Police Department data.

In 2020, the Otero County Animal Shelter took in 1,605 animals, saw 542 adopted and euthanized 364 animals, according to Otero County Animal Shelter data.

Officials with both organizations expected the number of surrendered animals to increase post COVID-19 pandemic, as pet owners found their way back to offices and away from home.

“It’s post-COVID-19 stuff, everyone was home and had time for the dog and now everyone is going back to work and we’re getting the same stories, you know?” Alamogordo Animal Control Manager Dwaine Martinez told the Alamogordo Daily News.

Martinez said a surge in pet surrenders was already noted.

Otero County Animal Shelter Manager Lori Soto said the shelter receives dozens of surrenders.

“I think we have a mixed group,” Loretta Burks of Otero County Animal Shelter said. “I think we’re seeing some where people took them for the pandemic. Where we’re located, we’re in kind of a unique spot because we also take off of (Holloman Air Force Base).”

This means that some of the surrendered animals coming in are due to an airman’s deployment to a place where dogs may not be able to be shipped or because they cannot afford to transport the dog, Burks said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the short-term foster program through Otero County Animal Shelter was not active, Burks said.

One of Otero County Animal Shelter’s partners is Dogbreath Express Rescue Transport.

Anthony “Buddy” Gurnari of Dogbreath Express helps with canine overflow from the Alamogordo Animal Shelter.

“He’s taken a lot of dogs because we have been trying to help people and take them in and he’s been really good about trying to help get these dogs out to no-kill shelters and stuff so we can make room and try to help people with the overflow that’s coming out of the city,” Soto said.