TUES: Lawsuit Details Rodent Infestation At Prison, Judge Says Cannabis Rules Not Supported, + More

Feb 2, 2021


Lawsuit Decries Rodent Infestation At New Mexico Prison - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Two former inmates in New Mexico are suing state prison staff and a food-service contractor for cruelty and negligence after they failed to resolve a yearslong rat and mouse infestation at the kitchen in a women's lockup. They cited health risks including mouse-borne Hantavirus.

The federal-court lawsuit announced Tuesday from Albuquerque-area residents Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia describes a "horrific and widespread" rodent infestation that included contact between food and the rodent feces, urine and and even rodents that somehow plunged into stew and a batch of oatmeal.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on details of the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

The lawsuit also takes aim at South Dakota-based contractor Summit Food Service that provides meal services the Western New Mexico Corrections Facility, a 390-bed prison in the city of Grants. Company representatives were unavailable.

The suit was filed by the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for improved prison conditions. The group was established last year and is led by attorney Matthew Coyte.

Zapata and Garcia attest to bouts of severe food poisoning during their incarceration that resulted in vomiting and diarrhea.

The suit says numerous complaints were filed by inmates without an adequate response. Inmates say they risked discipline by defying orders to serve contaminated food.

New Mexico Fines Store Where Employee Died From COVID-19Associated Press

Workplace safety regulators are fining an auto parts store in southeastern New Mexico $243,000 amid accusations it allowed employees with coronavirus symptoms to continue working without properly screening them.

The Environment Department announced the penalty Tuesday against O'Reilly Auto Parts in Lovington, where employees showing symptoms were allowed to work and ultimately tested positive for the virus.

Three workers tested positive, including a 46-year-old woman who later died. A company representative had no immediate comment.

Also Tuesday, state health officials reported 434 new COVID-19 infections, including a surge of cases in the Los Lunas area, and 15 related deaths.

Infection rates and daily deaths are tending downward in New Mexico, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project.

The seven-day rolling average of the rate of positive cases decreased over the past two weeks to 4.9% on Monday, from 9.5% on Jan. 18. Average daily deaths numbered about 20, down from 28.

An employee for the secretary of state's office tested positive for the coronavirus at the state Capitol, the legal services office for the Legislature said.

Legislative Council Service Director Raùl Burciaga said there was no close contact between the infected person and any lawmaker or legislative staff.

The Statehouse is closed to the public amid on-site testing clinics to guard against outbreaks. There have been six positive virus tests there since Jan. 15.

Biden's Pause On Oil Creates Uncertainty For New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are voicing concerns about U.S. President Joe Biden's pause on oil, saying recent actions by the administration will undoubtedly have long-term implications for the state's financial outlook.

Industry groups and state regulators testified Tuesday before a key Senate committee about potential production decreases and revenue losses.

New Mexico already has seen a decrease in drilling rigs and decisions by developers to shift multimillion-dollar investments elsewhere.

With oil and gas revenues accounting for a significant portion of New Mexico's budget, experts warned that lost revenue will have to be made up through either spending cuts or tax increases.

Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told the finance committee that $1.5 billion in state revenue is at risk along with more than $12 billion in capital projects. He noted that more than half of production in the state comes from federal lands.

An analysis by the state Oil Conservation Division indicated that impacts over the short term would be minimal since more than 6,000 applications for drilling permits already have been approved.

However, the agency acknowledged that the federal orders create uncertainty for operators that already are dealing with infrastructure challenges and future production would likely drop off as there would be no new wells to replace those that are currently operating.

The agency is recommending the state prepare for a 10% reduction in production.

Legislative analysts reported that the cancellation of this year's federal lease sales would mean a direct loss of about $12 million for the state but that it's difficult to predict the total impact given uncertainty within the industry and questions about whether the orders could be extended or amended.

Analysts did note that current prices per barrel and production levels are higher than what was predicted in December's revenue forecast.

New Mexico Cannabis Rules Not Backed By Evidence, Judge SaysAssociated Press

A New Mexico district judge has ruled directives written by the state Department of Health for oversight of a medical cannabis program were not supported by evidence.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported District Judge Bryan Biedscheid issued an order Friday repealing the regulations and ordering they must be rewritten.

The order says the department did not appear to have followed statute by consulting with the state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, while medical cannabis testing rules were not supported by evidence.

The order was in response to a July complaint by New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health, the state's largest medical cannabis producer. The company claimed the department had provided "no rational connection" between facts and its rule-making process.

Ultra Health Chief Executive Officer Duke Rodriguez has sued the department multiple times to contest sanctions, gross receipts tax applicability and the definition of adequate supply.

Biedscheid wrote that he hoped his order would provide guidance for the health department to prevent the issue from returning to the court.

The department of health said in an email that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Albert Hale, 2nd President Of Navajo Nation In 1990s, DiesAssociated Press

Albert Hale, who served as the second president of the Navajo Nation in the 1990s, died Tuesday.

A cause of death and an exact age for Hale was not immediately available. But tribal officials said Hale was in his early 70s and was battling COVID-19 when the Navajo Nation Council heard of his condition last Friday.

Hale was the tribe's president from 1995 to 1998.

Prior to that, Hale served as Assistant Attorney General for the Navajo Nation and was special counsel to the Navajo Nation Council.

He also served as a Judge Pro Tempore in the Laguna Tribal Court system.

In 2004, Hale was appointed to serve the remaining term of a state Senate seat in District and served until 2011.

From 2011 to 2017, Hale was elected to serve in the Arizona House of Representatives

Tribal officials say Hale also was known for his term as chair of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission at the time of the negotiation of the San Juan River Basin Water Right Settlement Agreement.

That agreement went on to be ratified by Congress after it was signed in 2005.

New Mexico Legislators Seek Policing, Cannabis Reforms - Associated Press

The New Mexico state Senate is wading into ambitious reform proposals that would rein in the use of deadly force by police, expand cannabis sales, provide free college tuition and criminalize threats against public officials. 

More than 150 bills were introduced as the state Senate on Monday held a rare floor session amid the pandemic and a spate of virus infections at the Capitol. 

They included a bill from Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque that would establish statewide standards for the use of force by police officers and require training on so-called de-escalation tactics.

That bill would also ban certain police holds, weapons and tactics — including "no knock" search warrants, which allow officers to enter a home without announcing their presence, often in drug cases to prevent suspects from getting rid of a stash.

A hallmark provision of the bill states that "a law enforcement officer shall not use deadly physical force upon another person unless it is used as a last resort, after the officer has exhausted de-escalation tactics."

At least two bills were introduced Monday that align with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's goals of expanding the cannabis market in New Mexico to recreational use.

They include a proposal from Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle that would funnel taxes on marijuana to local and state law enforcement agencies as well as mental health programs. A new state agency would be established to regulate the expanded cannabis production and set standards for consumer protection and workplace safety.

“There is growing bipartisan agreement that prohibition has not been effective in limiting and controlling the negative effects of cannabis," Pirtle said in a news release.

Many Democratic legislators want cannabis legalization laws to provide fiscal or economic aid to communities adversely affected by drug criminalization and the decades-long "war on drugs" by law enforcement agencies.

State senators also introduced a bill that expands the reach of so-called opportunity scholarships that provide tuition-free college for in-state students.

Lujan Grisham hopes to expand the current effort behind students pursuing two-year associate degrees and certificates.

Amid a raft of bill introductions, Republican state Senators unsuccessfully attempted to halt a pro-abortion rights initiative that would eliminate the state's dormant ban on most abortion procedures.

The Senate voted 25-14 to advance the bill to its second committee hearing.

Judge Denies Release Of Jailed Cowboys For Trump Leader - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A federal judge denied bail Monday to jailed Cowboys for Trump leader Couy Griffin as he awaits trial on a charge involving the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, describing Griffin as a flight risk who denies the legitimacy of the current U.S. government.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui said Griffin's behavior and statements suggest he might obstruct justice based on his presence in a riotous crowd outside the U.S. Capitol and insistence that the election was not won by President Joe Biden.

Griffin has said he was swept by a crowd past barricades but never went inside the Capitol. At one point, he appeared on a balcony and attempted to lead the crowd in prayer.

A public defender told the court on Monday that Griffin was within his 1st Amendment right of free speech, did not have knowledge that he was entering a restricted area at the Capitol and has not shown disregard for the judiciary branch of government that would make him a flight risk. 

Faruqui said the clear purpose of the riot was to stop Vice President Mike Pence and Congress from certifying the election, and that Griffin vowed to return to finish a job that was left undone.

Griffin, a commissioner in Otero County, was arrested on Jan. 17 in Washington — days after announcing during a public meeting in Alamogordo that he would return to Washington in opposition to Biden's election and inauguration.

"These statement that he makes about blood running out of the capitol, threats to members of Congress, stating that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, all of those things demonstrate to me history and characteristics that warrant and favor detention," Faruqui said, paraphrasing statements made by Griffin before and after the Capitol siege. 

The judge also pushed back on the idea that Griffin was an observer and not a participant in the siege.

"You were not some wallflower in an otherwise large event," Faruqui told Griffin. "You were in the thick of things."

A defense attorney said Griffin has been released into the general jail population after a prolonged stint in solitary confinement because he initially refused a coronavirus test.

Monday's hearing was conducted remotely by telephone and video conference.

New Mexico Vaccine Clinic Stops Giving Shots Temporarily - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

One of New Mexico's largest vaccination clinics is hitting the pause button and will temporarily stop giving vaccines after administering shots for more than a week.

University of New Mexico Health Sciences officials say they want to ensure they have enough doses to give booster shots to people who have received their first shots. The clinic at the university's arena, also known as The Pit, is expected to be closed through Saturday.

The clinic was administering around 1,600 doses per day, with a goal of eventually hitting 3,000 shots daily. An official said the intent is still to hit that mark as soon as more vaccine doses are available.

State officials said Monday that they are not aware of any other providers planning to halt vaccination operations this week.

New Mexico is receiving about 56,000 doses per week. New Mexico Department of Health spokesman Matt Bieber said that's expected to continue over the next three weeks, representing a 16% increase in allocations.

He said those doses are being distributed to an ever-expanding network of providers around the state.

Data from the state Health Department shows that 98% of the 278,800 doses that have been shipped to New Mexico so far already have been administered.

About one-quarter of New Mexico's population has registered with the state to receive vaccinations.

Under the plan, health care workers, first responders and residents and staff at nursing homes and long-term care facilities were among the first to get inoculated. The current phase includes people 75 and older and younger people with preexisting health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Grocery store employees and other essential workers who are unable to work remotely are next on the list, with the state expecting to begin vaccinations for the general public around midyear.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico since the pandemic began last year have topped 174,000, including 487 new cases on Monday and 12 additional deaths.

The state's seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has been dropping in recent weeks while the rolling average of daily deaths was nearly flat.

Navajo Nation Reports 61 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Monday reported 61 new COVID-19 cases and two more deaths. 

The latest numbers raised the totals to 28,388 cases and 1,020 known deaths since the pandemic began. 

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 56 communities with uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events. The actions in the latest public health emergency order will run through at least Feb. 15.

New Mexico Seeks Intervention In Federal Contamination Case - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is challenging a decision by a federal court to combine the state's lawsuit over contamination at U.S. Air Force bases with similar litigation brought by hundreds of other jurisdictions.

The New Mexico attorney general's office and the state Environment Department are petitioning the U.S. Court of Appeals to keep the case separate.

They argue that the previous court decision was a violation of the state's sovereignty and could result in extreme delays that have the potential to further endanger public health and the environment.

New Mexico sued the Air Force in 2019 over groundwater contamination at Cannon and Holloman air bases, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.

The contamination is linked to a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The state in court documents describes the contamination detected at Cannon and Holloman as shocking, saying it migrated offsite into public and private wells that provide drinking water and livestock and irrigation water to the surrounding communities.

The state said New Mexico's dairy industry has been affected along with residential and commercial property values.

If the petition is granted, state officials say the case would be transferred from the U.S. District of South Carolina to the federal court in New Mexico, clearing the way for a motion to move forward that seeks to force the government to start cleaning up.

Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the nation. Growing evidence that exposure can be dangerous has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider setting a maximum level for the chemicals in drinking water nationwide.

Currently only non-enforceable drinking water health advisories are in place.

Meanwhile, New Mexico officials said they will continue using state resources to investigate the extent of the contamination around Clovis and Alamogordo.

Bernalillo County Sheriff's Deputy Shoots, Kills SuspectAssociated Press

Authorities in Bernalillo County say a man was killed by a deputy after fleeing the scene of a fight where a shot had reportedly been fired.

Sheriff Manny Gonzales said at a news conference early Monday that the shooting is the first deputy-involved shooting since the agency began incorporating body cameras on all officers.

The incident began when deputies were enroute to a call about a possible fight in the South Valley area and were told there was gun fire.

When they arrived, deputies followed a suspect on foot.

Gonzales says it's not clear after that how much gunfire was exchanged but that a bullet from one deputy hit the suspect.

He was pronounced dead at the scene. No deputies were injured.

The sheriff says all the officers had their body cameras on. The shooting is under investigation.

The suspect has not yet been identified.

Gonzales last month unveiled body cameras that are being worn by all 310 deputies in the wake of a newly approved state law requiring law enforcement to have them.

Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, has agreed to a more than $3 million, five-year contract for the BodyWorn camera by Utility, Inc.

Virgin Galactic Sets New Mexico Flight Test Date Associated Press

Virgin Galactic has set the date for a rocket-powered test flight this month in southern New Mexico following work to correct a problem that prevented ignition on its last attempt.

The company says Monday the flight window will open Feb. 13, with opportunities to fly through the remainder of the month. The spaceship will be flown by two pilots and carry research payloads under a NASA program.

The problem occurred Dec. 12 on what was planned to be the spacecraft's first flight into space from Spaceport America.

Instead, its computer triggered a fail-safe scenario that prevented ignition and the craft safely glided to a landing.

The test program is working toward the start of commercial passenger flights from Spaceport America.

The spacecraft made two previous suborbital space flights over the Southern California desert, where it was developed and built.