New State Ethics Commission Opens, Nuclear Repository Oversight Office Gets New Acting Manager

Jan 3, 2020

New Mexico Gets New Arbiter On Government Ethics, Corruption - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico has a new arbiter when it comes to ethical lapses and potential corruption among public employees, contractors and lobbyists.

The state Ethics Commission opened its doors yesterday to complaints regarding campaign finances, government contracting, gifts from lobbyists and more. It comes at a time when there are spending surges on infrastructure and efforts to influence elections.

Voters approved the creation of the Ethics Commission in November 2018, passing a constitutional amendment in the wake of a string of corruption scandals that led to jail time for former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran and former state Sen. Phil Griego.

New Mexico's Resolution: Get More People Outside In 2020By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The number of recreation access permits issued by the New Mexico State Land Office nearly tripled in 2019, and officials say the goal is to keep growing that number.

They say they want to identify new recreational areas on state trust land and form more partnerships with hiking, biking, rock climbing and other advocacy groups.

Craig Johnson is the agency's first outdoor recreation program manager. As head of the recently launched "Open for Adventure" campaign, he tells The Associated Press that New Mexico's status as an underdog in the outdoor recreation world will end up being one of its draws as other destinations in the U.S. Southwest become more crowded.

Man Sentenced To Life Plus 15 Years In 2008 Cartel KillingAssociated Press

A man extradited to the United States from Mexico in 2015 to stand trial in a 2008 killing for a drug cartel has been sentenced to life plus 15 years in prison.

A state District Court judge in Albuquerque sentenced Jaime Veleta on Friday on his October convictions for first-degree murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and conspiracy.

Authorities said Veleta fled to Mexico after kidnapping Danny Baca from his home, killing him and leaving his burned body on a desert mesa south of Albuquerque. 

Preservation Of Chicano Mural Includes Projection ProposalAssociated Press

New Mexico's plans to turn a state-owned building into a new contemporary art museum have been endorsed by a review board charged with preserving historic enclaves.

The Santa Fe Historic Districts Review Board after meeting Thursday signed off on the revised design of the proposed structure. Officials say the plans include honoring a 1980s Chicano mural that will be destroyed to make way for the new museum by projecting an image of it onto a blank wall.

The project initially drew sharp criticism for its aesthetics, its height and concerns about the decades-old mural.

Nuclear Repository Oversight Office Gets New Acting Manager - Associated Press

A longtime U.S. Energy Department official has been appointed to lead the agency's office in New Mexico that oversees the federal government's only underground repository for nuclear waste. 

Gregory Sosson took over as acting manager in December. 

Before coming to Carlsbad, Sosson served in numerous high-level positions at the DOE's Office of Environmental Management. That included stints as the chief of nuclear safety, chief security officer and associate deputy assistant secretary for oversight of field operations. 

During his tenure, Sosson has worked closely on operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, including its restart in 2017 following a radiation release.

Albuquerque City Councilor Ken Sanchez Dies At 63 - Associated Press

Ken Sanchez, a four-term member of the Albuquerque City Council, has died at 63. 

His cause of death wasn't released but Mayor Tim Keller's said Wednesday that Sanchez hadn't returned to his council duties since having a medical emergency in November. 

Sanchez had been a councilor since 2005, serving as council president three times during that span. Keller said Sanchez was a "legendary public servant" who put policy before partisanship and people before politics. 

Officials said memorial services for Sanchez will be announced this week. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered flags statewide to be flown at half-staff through sundown Friday.

Leader Of Armed Border Group Pleads Guilty To Gun ChargeAssociated Press

The leader of an armed group that detained asylum-seeking families near the U.S.-Mexico border has pleaded guilty in New Mexico to a firearms charge.

Larry Mitchell Hopkins pleaded guilty to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The conviction stems from a 2017 visit by an FBI agent to Hopkins' home. Hopkins was arrested April 20 in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near the U.S. border with Mexico where his group had been stopping migrants and ordering them to wait as they alerted Border Patrol.

He acknowledged possessing nine guns. Hopkins faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

New Mexico's Top Court Upholds Drug Search, Seizure - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of a Curry County man on drug trafficking charges by reversing an appeals court ruling about how state police obtained evidence from the defendant's car. 

The Supreme Court found that a state police officer reasonably suspected that he had witnessed drug sales by Mikel Martinez at a Clovis gas station before pulling over the car and finding a baggie of white powder by the rear tire. 

That led to a search of the car by warrant that uncovered methamphetamine, marijuana, a scale, cash and drug paraphernalia.

Report: Below-average Moisture Leaves Soil Dry In New Mexico - Associated Press

Federal agriculture officials say December's weather patterns brought mountain snow and rain to parts of New Mexico, but below-average accumulations have left many locations dry. 

The U.S. Agriculture Department's statistic service for the region reported Thursday that snowpack levels in Mora County were excellent, but temperatures statewide were generally warmer than normal for the month. 

While the latest map showed drought-free conditions across more than half of the state, reports from the northeastern plains indicated that wheat was showing signs of drought stress. 

Officials said corn and cotton harvests were finished while the red chile harvest was almost complete.

Animal Advocacy Group Files Complaint Against New Mexico Lab - Associated Press

An animal advocacy group has filed a complaint about the treatment of monkeys and other animals at a research facility in New Mexico. 

The Ohio-based group Stop Animal Exploitation Now outlined its claims against the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in a letter sent Thursday to the U.S. Agriculture Department. 

The group accuses the lab of a pattern of negligence and carelessness that resulted in the deaths of monkeys.

The lab did not immediately return a message seeking comment about the complaint.

The group wants regulators to investigate what it claims are violations of federal laws meant to protect lab animals.

Renovations At New Mexico's Largest Airport Behind Schedule – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Renovations at New Mexico's largest airport are scheduled to wrap up in February, but officials acknowledge that the project is 18 months behind schedule and about $2.5 million over the initial budget.

Albuquerque's aviation director tells the Albuquerque Journal that the delays are due in part to inadequate scoping of the project and problems with an electrical subcontractor. Officials say that while crews have become a familiar site at the airport, the work has had little effect on travelers.

The work began in 2017, with the objective being to refurbish and upgrade the terminal's ticketing, baggage claim and exterior areas.

New Mexico Power Plant The Focus Of New Public Meeting Associated Press

Residents in northwestern New Mexico will have an opportunity to weigh in on the future of a coal-fired power plant slated for closure in 2022.

Public Regulation Commission Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar has scheduled a hearing Monday in Farmington. The commission is considering Public Service Co. of New Mexico's application to shutter the plant and replace the lost capacity with a mix of natural gas, renewables and battery storage.

At issue is whether the state's energy transition law applies and if the plant's owners can recover investments by selling bonds that would be paid off by utility customers. The plan also includes $40 million in economic aid for the area.

$8B Needed In Transportation Repairs On Navajo Nation Gallup Independent, Associated Press

Transportation officials for the Navajo Nation have reported it would take 116 years and $7.9 billion to meet current infrastructure needs.  

The Gallup Independent reported Tuesday that officials from the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation reported the figures as part of a $320 million bonding plan drafted to fund bridges, pavement preservation projects and earth road improvements.

Officials say the Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee unanimously accepted the plan in early December. They say the plan identified $1.4 billion in needs to address pavement deficiencies and $6.5 billion for upgrades to the existing roadway system.