Bernalillo County DA to halt in-person hearings to protect attorneys from COVID-19

Starting Monday there will be significantly fewer prosecutors in Bernalillo County’s district court. Raul Torrez, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney, issued a letter to the state Supreme Court Thursday notifying justices that Torrez’s staff will not appear in person to any proceedings that can be done over video conferencing.  

“As of Monday, March 23, 2020, my attorneys and staff will not appear in person for any hearings which can be constitutionally conducted by video conference technology,” Torrez wrote. 

His announcement came days after the state Supreme Court added additional restrictions for court proceedings amid a growing number of positive COVID-19 tests in the state. 

In his letter, Torrez said his office took part in a test video conference with public defenders and a state district court judge. He argued that the test was proof that current technology will allow courts to preserve constitutional rights and public safety. 

“Unfortunately, despite viable technological alternatives, in-person hearings continue to be set for routine matters that do not legally require the physical presence of any of the parties involved,” Torrez wrote. “Courtrooms continue to gather too many people into confined spaces, unnecessarily placing my employees, their families, defendants, court personnel, and the entire community at risk.” 

Torrez’s letter echoed concerns he and others in the justice system sent to the Supreme Court last week. Both the state’s District Attorney’s Association and the Law Offices of the Public Defender issued their own letters to the Supreme Court.

Raul Torrez

District attorney: ‘Budgetary technicality’ to blame for unspent funds

Next January marks the beginning of the New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session, which will largely focus on budget issues, including how much money state departments, local governments and courts will get. Given Albuquerque’s high crime rate, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office and its funding will likely be under scrutiny by legislators. A preview of that scrutiny came in the form of a letter in October from the head of the House committee in charge of the budget and the Speaker of the House, to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez. 

The October letter asked Torrez to detail how he spent the more-than-$6-million in appropriations his office received almost two years ago. In a Legislative Finance hearing earlier this week, Torrez told lawmakers a misunderstanding in how to word the request for money resulted in about $1.7 million of a $2 million special appropriation inaccessible to his office. In an almost 50-page report, Torrez told the LFC that it wasn’t until August of this year that his office realized that a “budgetary technicality” regarding recurring funds left most of the special appropriation effectively unusable. 

“We reached out to our analyst and we were specifically told that the language was not necessary,” Torrez told the panel. 

During the 2018 legislative session, Torrez asked the Legislature to appropriate $4.1 million with an additional $2.5 million to help fund a pilot program called the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) for better tracking and analysis.

Senate committee caves to governor’s demand for more police pay, DA funds

A Senate committee bent Saturday to calls by Gov. Susana Martinez for more funding for state police pay and the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, as well as calls from some fellow lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding cut from school districts last year. In announcing its version of the budget passed by the state House of Representatives late last month, the Senate Finance Committee seemed intent on maintaining the tenuous peace that has set in at the Roundhouse in the wake of the partisan clashes of the last few years. The budget would amount to about $6.3 billion and, according to the Senate Finance Committee, leave reserves around 10 percent. It would amount to about a 4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. The House passed its version of the spending plan by a vote of 65-3 on Jan.

DA will not retry officers in Boyd shooting

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez announced Friday afternoon his office would not reopen the case against former Albuquerque Police Department  officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy. The announcement came almost three months after Torrez took office and two months after he announced a special task force of prosecutors would review the case. In a press conference Torrez said both the task force and two attorneys from his office came to the same conclusion—that there was no evidence to show that a new trial would result in a new outcome. “There is no reason to believe the case against officers Sandy and Perez could be tried better or more exhaustively at a second trial or that a second jury could reach a different outcome than the first,” Torrez told reporters. The decision to not prosecute signals the end to a nearly-two year legal battle.

Auditor finds likely embezzlement from fund for those with disabilities

State Auditor Tim Keller announced Monday his office found what appears to be embezzlement of nearly $20,000 in public funds meant to go toward paying people with disabilities for training classes. The Office of the State Auditor announced Monday in a press release that it found $18,225 in public funds went to the personal bank accounts belonging to the former program director of the Center for Self-Advocacy. The Center for Self-Advocacy is part of the New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC), a public entity. Those with disabilities in the Center for Self-Advocacy program, called advocates, receive a $25 stipend to attend the training classes. The state auditor’s investigation found the “Program Director created false DDPC advocate invoices for classes not attended by the advocates.” These payments did not go to the advocates; instead, they went to the former program director’s bank account.

State Auditor: Charter school exec paid for cleaning with public funds

A review by the State Auditor found an Albuquerque charter school’s executive altered a receipt to receive a reimbursement from the school for cleaning services performed on her home. The investigation prompted a referral to prosecutors for multiple potential crimes. The State Auditor looked into the allegations, first raised in the media earlier this year, over the actions of Analee Maestas, the Executive Director of La Promesa Charter School. Maestas also is the Vice President of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education. “The timeline of events indicate that the Executive Director used school funds to pay for work completed at her home,” State Auditor Tim Keller said in a statement.

Soros-funded super PAC supports Torrez for BernCo DA

Billionaire George Soros is taking a stake in the Bernalillo County district attorney’s race, backing Raul Torrez with a $107,000 contribution to an independent expenditure committee. Soros made the donation May 26 to the newly created New Mexico Safety and Justice political action committee. That group reported spending $92,527 on media production and ad buys supporting Torrez and about $11,500 for polling ahead of Tuesday’s primary between Democrats Torrez and Edmund Perea. The super PAC has raised and spent more than Perea’s campaign. Most of the PAC money appears to have been spent on local radio spots, which feature Torrez speaking at rallies about his plans to reform the high-profile, sometimes controversial DA’s office in New Mexico’s most populous county.

Not just the Roundhouse: Big DA races looming in November

The deadline for New Mexico candidates to file has passed which means campaign season is in full swing. It’s not just legislators competing though. Across the state candidates are also running for the position for district attorney in their respective areas. These races may have extra attention this year after a relentless drumbeat of tough-on-crime bills during the legislative session. First Judicial District

The First Judicial District—which covers Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos Counties—will see at least a couple of former coworkers going up against each other.

The recent history of embattled DA Brandenburg

New Mexico’s district attorneys walk a difficult tightrope, weighing their roles in criminal courts, where they represent the state and work closely with law enforcement to prosecute crimes, against their political roles in the court of public opinion. For Second Judicial District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, that precarious balance has reached a tipping point. Her approach to officer-involved shootings has shifted over the years, but never so drastically as last week, when she opted to level murder charges against Albuquerque Police Department SWAT member Dominique Perez and now-retired detective Keith Sandy for the March 2014 shooting death of James Boyd. Here’s a look at Brandenburg’s long tenure and some of the events, controversies and scandals that have surrounded her handling of officer-involved shootings. If the timeline does not load, click here for another version.