Bill aimed at preventing domestic terrorism advances

The state House Judiciary Committee on Monday approved legislation aimed at preventing domestic terrorism in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in August at an El Paso Walmart that targeted Hispanics. The panel also advanced legislation toughening the state’s cyberterrorism law. Supporters of House Bill 269, which resulted from discussions among New Mexico officials about how to guard the state against such an incident, argued it will offer prosecutors the proper legal tools in a case of domestic terrorism. The bill, which now advances to the House floor, defines the state crime of terrorism and would make it a second-degree felony to commit an act meant to intimidate or coerce the public, including mass violence in a public place, or an attempt to influence policy or politics using intimidation or coercion. Under the measure, it also would become a second-degree felony to make or possess a weapon “designed or intended to cause death or serious physical injury by the release, dissemination or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals” or biological or radioactive weapons.

State officials scramble to respond to restraint and seclusion in schools

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Hector Balderas and Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, are all moving independently to rein in some of the most dangerous practices in New Mexico classrooms: restraint and seclusion. Each is pursuing separate initiatives to enforce stricter reporting requirements for incidents involving the controversial practices.  

Their efforts follow an October 2019 Searchlight investigation revealing that New Mexico schools routinely restrain and seclude special education students, often in violation of state and federal law. The state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has restrained and secluded students well over 4,600 times since 2014, the investigation found. It also found that APS repeatedly filed misleading reports to the federal government, even taking the extraordinary step of refusing to provide records to parents whose children were restrained or secluded.  

Often referred to as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a contentious and dangerous method of behavior management derived from karate and judo, in which specially trained school staff place children and youth in physical holds that restrict movement. Seclusion, another behavior management practice, entails forcing a student into isolated rooms sometimes referred to as “scream rooms.” 

Child psychologists have decried the practices as ineffective and traumatic — for both students and staff.

New Mexico sues over talc, citing marketing aimed at African-American and Hispanic New Mexico women and children

New Mexico sued Johnson & Johnson and Valeant Pharmaceuticals over talc-based products it allegedly knew were laced with contamination while specifically marketing those products to African-American and Hispanic New Mexican women and children. Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the suit Friday in the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico. Although thousands of individuals have sued Johnson & Johnson over the manufacture and sale of talc products that allegedly contain toxic substances, New Mexico is one of the first states to seek punitive damages through legal action. New Mexico alleges that “to grow the franchise,” Johnson & Johnson specifically targeted African-American and Hispanic women and children because the company’s studies showed that those two ethnicities used Johnson’s Baby Powder products at higher rates. New Mexico’s brief states that this disproportionately affects New Mexico citizens because 48 percent of the population is made up of African-American and Hispanic people.

Judge finds state senator guilty of DWI, reckless driving

A district judge found state Sen. Richard Martinez guilty of driving while intoxicated and reckless driving on Tuesday. 

This past summer, Martinez, D-Española, was driving when he hit the car of a couple waiting at a stoplight in Española. After the state senator was taken to a hospital, police arrested him for DWI and reckless driving. 

The ruling on Tuesday came at the end of a two-day bench trial where Martinez’s lawyer, David Foster, argued that the arresting officer didn’t follow protocols for field sobriety tests and that signs of impairment by Martinez could have been from a head injury sustained in the crash. 

During their closing arguments, prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office argued that police lapel camera footage showed Martinez struggling with the sobriety tests and admitting that he had at least two alcoholic drinks that night. 

In that footage Martinez was inconsistent on how much he had to drink and about the type of drinks he had. Martinez refused any sort of breath test, and replied, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” when the officer asked for his consent. Prosecutors argued that comment was a “consciousness of guilt.” 

“No one is above the law, not even a senator, not even this defendant,” one prosecutor told the judge. 

In his closing arguments, Foster criticized police for not following protocol and for inconsistencies in their reports. 

“How can you believe anything [the arresting officer] is saying?” Foster asked. 

He also criticized prosecutors for pointing out a dark spot on Martinez’s shorts that can barely be seen in the police footage. During the first day of trial, prosecutors argued that the dark spot was urine and a sign that Martinez was too intoxicated to drive a car.

State settles with five more behavioral health providers over 2013 funding freeze

The state settled with five more behavioral health providers who had sued after the state froze their access to Medicaid funding in 2013. At the time, the state said it had found credible allegations of fraud by the providers. The new settlements totaled $10 million and are the last of the ten lawsuits filed by providers over the funding freeze. These latest settlements were paid to Santa Maria El Mirador, the provider formerly known as Easter Seals El Mirador; Border Area Mental Health Services; Southwest Counseling Center, Inc.; Southern New Mexico Human Development, Inc.; and Families and Youth, Inc.

The state’s Attorney General cleared all providers that the Susana Martinez administration accused of fraud. The suspension caused a behavioral health crisis in New Mexico.

AG warns against vaping, using e-cigarettes

New Mexico’s Attorney General issued a warning to residents about the health risks of e-cigarettes and vaping. The announcement came after the federal Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Administration each announced investigations into the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes. 

“I am warning all New Mexicans of the health and safety risks associated with the use of e-cigarettes of any kind,” said Attorney General Balderas. “My office will hold any bad actor civilly and criminally accountable that risks the lives of New Mexican children by falsely marketing these devices as safe.”

The New Mexico Department of Health said it had identified 14 vaping-related injury cases, each requiring hospitalization; 10 patients said they had vaped products with THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, while one said they had only used nicotine, which a department spokesman said is similar to national numbers. Earlier this year, reports of mysterious illnesses and deaths linked to vaping prompted investigations and media coverage of the problem. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that there are a reported 805 lung injury cases in 46 states, including New Mexico, and one U.S. territory, along with 12 confirmed deaths in ten states.

AG files suit against Sackler family over opioids

As opioid manufacturers face increasing pressure over their role in the widening opioid epidemic across the United States, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced a lawsuit against eight members of the Sackler family, who own and operate Purdue Pharma. 

Balderas called the family “perhaps the most deadly drug dealers in the world” and said the company used deceitful and illegal practices to market and sell opioids in the state. “Because of their illegal actions, New Mexico faces some of the highest opioid related death numbers in the nation, and we have whole communities here in New Mexico which will never be the same again,” Balderas said. “Today I am seeking to hold them accountable and to help end New Mexico’s crisis and avoid more lives being lost.” The Sacklers agreed to give up “the entire value” of Purdue Pharma to settle lawsuits against the company according to a statement provided to NPR this week. The company is facing a reported 2,000 lawsuits and billions of dollars worth of damages related to their marketing and sales of opioids.

NM group files suit against Sec. of State and AG over referendum process

A group of New Mexicans filed a lawsuit Thursday afternoon against two state officials who rejected numerous attempts to start the process to overturn laws passed in this year’s legislative session.   

The lawsuit, filed by former Libertarian attorney general candidate Blair Dunn on behalf of a group called the New Mexico Patriot Advocacy Coalition, asks a state district court judge in Curry County to deem actions taken by the two elected officials as unconstitutional. The lawsuit claims New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, in consultation with state Attorney General Hector Balderas, violated the rights of New Mexicans by denying 10 attempts to overturn recently passed laws. The state constitution allows for a referendum process in which petition signatures are gathered to overturn laws, though the process is rarely used and has only been successful once in state history. 

Previous attempts by House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, to overturn gun restriction laws were also rejected. Townsend’s three attempts were denied by Toulouse Oliver for what she called technical errors and on the grounds that the state’s process for referendums to reverse laws does not apply to laws “providing for the public peace, health and safety.” One of Townsend’s attempts to overturn a gun background check law is among the ten instances the coalition says Toulouse wrongfully denied. The other petition attempts, filed by the coalition, aimed to overturn laws ranging from the recent minimum wage increase, election changes and a law that shot down the ability for local governments to enact right-to-work laws.

State presses Air Force to take action on PFAS contamination

The state of New Mexico wants a federal court to compel the Air Force to address contamination at two U.S. Air Force bases. The contamination comes from PFAS, a class of chemicals that came from the use of a since-discontinued firefighting foam at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases. Areas of contamination span throughout the country with hundreds of confirmed locations across 43 states, largely from places like military bases. See all of NM Political Report’s coverage on PFAS contamination

The state filed a preliminary injunction to get the Air Force to regularly test groundwater and surface water testing, to provide alternate water sources for those affected and provide voluntary blood tests for those who may have been exposed to the toxic chemicals. The injunction was filed by the Attorney General and the New Mexico Environment Department.

No Epstein indictment here, for now

Investigators with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office plan to turn over any information they gather about alleged sex crimes committed here by Jeffrey Epstein to federal prosecutors “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the AG says. That means, for now, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ team is working as fact-gatherer for the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, where Epstein pleaded not guilty last week to charges of sex trafficking of minors and sex trafficking conspiracy, says Matt Baca, senior counsel for Balderas’ office. Mug shot of Jeffrey Epstein made available by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department, taken following his indictment for soliciting a prostitute in 2006

“At this point it’s primarily been communication between the two offices,” Baca tells Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth on Wednesday. “As soon as we’re done, or at a place where we feel like we have significant investigative materials to turn over to them, we plan to do that.”

He says the AG isn’t working on an indictment here, but noted “nothing is off the table in terms of possible state-level charges.”

Baca confirms that “two or more” women have told prosecutors in New Mexico they are victims of Epstein, who owns the massive Zorro Ranch in southern Santa Fe County. The AG’s office began investigating allegations against Epstein in “February or March,” he says, independent from the SDNY investigation.