The administrator of Doña Ana County’s jail, who is facing a second-degree felony charge of embezzlement or fraud over $20,000, isn’t accused of pocketing that money.
Instead, Chris Barela allegedly spent money that was set aside for the “health and morale” of inmates on other jail-related expenses — such as clothing, bedding, toiletries, paying inmates to work, and meals for jail employees.
In addition, Barela donated inmates’ gym equipment to the Police Athletic League, where he was a boxing coach.
Use of the fund, which comes from a portion of profits a private vendor makes on selling toiletries, snacks and other goods at the jail, has been a hot topic for years. A county internal audit found problems with the way the money was being spent in 2009. And county commissioners talked about some of the issues identified — including paying inmates from the fund — with Barela at a meeting in September.
In the public meeting, commissioners discussed setting new policies to govern the fund and possibly creating an oversight committee, the Sun-News reported at the time.
Commissioner Ben Rawson suggested that Barela and someone from the county’s finance department draft policy proposals related to the fund’s use.
“And at that point, we can get input from the public and other people that are interested in it and approve a set of policies that would be in the best interests of the county,” the Sun-News quoted Rawson as saying.
But law enforcement officials apparently believe the matter requires more serious action than new policies. The criminal complaint states that a “confidential source” confronted Barela about the inappropriate spending and was “disregarded and told not to get involved.”
The fraud or extortion charge carries a maximum prison sentence of nine years.
Barela faces two other charges — bringing contraband into a jail, a fourth-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 18 months, and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year. The contraband charge relates to Barela carrying a semi-automatic rifle into a room where an inmate who had taken another inmate hostage was being held.
That situation was confirmed by Lt. Patrick Howie, by a confidential source, and by surveillance video, according to the criminal complaint.
“Upon watching the video there are multiple unsecured inmates in the close proximity of Defendant and clearly within Defendant’s field of vision and within arm’s reach of the AR-15 rifle,” the complaint states.
The complaint was created by Ken Roberts, an investigator in the sheriff’s department, and states that it was “reviewed for legal sufficiency” by District Attorney Mark D’Antonio, who also signed the document.
After being arrested Tuesday, Barela was taken to Lea County to be booked into the jail there. He posted a $35,000 surety bond and was released the same day, the Sun-News reported. His first court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 24.
Barela is on paid administrative leave from his job, county spokesman Jess Williams said. The second-in-command at the jail has been named acting director.