COMMENTARY: When Susana Martinez was district attorney, the state auditor asked her to review a special audit of Doña Ana County government for possible prosecution.
The county provides office space for the district attorney. At the time, a county-hired architect was designing new offices for county government and the DA. The hiring of that architect was one of the issues identified in the audit.
Seeking to avoid a potential conflict of interest — or at least the perception of one — Martinez asked state police and the district attorney in Santa Fe to handle the case instead.
A decade later, contrast that cautious — and correct — decision with the circus that played out on Tuesday.
At a morning news conference, Sheriff Enrique “Kiki” Vigil and current District Attorney Mark D’Antonio — whose agencies are both housed by county government — announced that they’d arrested the administrator of the county jail on embezzlement and other charges. Vigil took control of the jail. During two news conferences, he took potshots at county officials who’s jail he’d just seized.
County Manager Julia Brown, with a confident look on her face, interrupted the second news conference to hand a visibly flustered Vigil a restraining order requiring that he pull his agents out of the jail and give control back to Brown.
Vigil replied with another potshot. Then he complied with the judge’s order.
Vigil has repeatedly picked fights with county commissioners and administrators since taking office, starting with a battle about revenue from a tax increase. He’s accused commissioners of violating the state Open Meetings Act, blamed commissioners and administration for service cuts he implemented, and sued two commissioners in federal court.
Following the first arrest in his ongoing investigation of county government, Vigil continues to complain about how the county’s administration is treating him.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable for some to perceive that Vigil is attempting extortion, or a coup, and that D’Antonio, who’s up for re-election next year, is along for the ride to boost his anti-corruption credentials.
D’Antonio tried to reassure everyone at a news conference that the arrest of Chris Barela and the ongoing investigation “is not a witch hunt.” He asked the sheriff and county commissioners to work together.
Here’s a tip for the top two law-enforcement officers in Doña Ana County: The animosity Vigil helped create led to the perception among some that this is a witch hunt. Vigil is continuing to fan those flames.
Couple that with the fact that the county provides office space for D’Antonio and Vigil — and also controls salaries for the sheriff’s employees and provides other support — and the correct path forward should be obvious. It’s the one Martinez modeled a decade ago.
Vigil and D’Antonio need to ask someone else take over this investigation and prosecution. The Las Cruces Police Department. The attorney general. State police. Anyone else.
I’m making no judgement about the charges against Barela, which may have merit. And I’m not criticizing the investigators and other employees who work for Vigil and D’Antonio. I’ve been a crime reporter in this community. Most of its law-enforcement officers are hard-working men and women with integrity.
It’s the elected officials at the top who need to have the political sense and ethical grounding to spot a potential conflict and avoid it.
That’s especially important when taking on public corruption. Law enforcement officials must seek to leave no doubt in people’s minds that they acted with integrity. Otherwise they’ve corrupted their attempt to root out corruption.
Barela deserves a trial not tainted by politics. The investigators deserve to know they’re doing work for the good of the people they’ve sworn to protect, not the political ambitions of their bosses. The men, women and children housed in the county jail deserve to know this case is about the alleged theft of food, toiletries and other items that were supposed to be theirs. The citizens of this county deserve the same.
That’s not an assurance Vigil and D’Antonio can provide. It’s time to hand this case off to someone else.