Sunday, September 11, 2016

Further Thoughts on the County's Settlement with Chris Barela

The recent op-ed defending the County's $201,000 settlement with Detention Center Director Chris Barela was sincere and made some valid points. The County Commission genuinely feels it dodged an expensive bullet by settling with Barela. 

But questions remain.

In late 2013, it appeared that Barela had committed breaches of duty that might constitute crimes. Some were reported to authorities by a commissioner and others. Some had been reported to county management earlier, in detailed writings.

A state police investigation ensued. Too much time passed. Some say that the state police sat on it. At least one state police source suggested it was the District Attorney's fault. Eventually DASO investigated. 

Sheriff Kiki Vigil probably should have recused himself. He was already at odds with the County Manager and Commission. Two of his most generous campaign contributors ran private prisons, we later learned. (See March 2016 column.) I've learned since that Vigil articulated (and may still hold) an intention to take over the Detention Center. 

Vigil was not the ideal person to investigate Barela; and the showy arrest, and transportation of Barela to a distant county were unnecessary. 

Still, that investigation by two DASO deputies was thorough. While some of the apparently criminal conduct was time-barred and couldn't be prosecuted now, the investigation uncovered evidence of other possible violations. 

Barela is legally innocent of crimes; but we can still question his conduct and that of other public officials. 

Commissioner Billy Garrett's op-ed takes too much comfort from the grand jury's failure to indict Barela. If prosecutors felt some charges wouldn't sufficiently impress a criminal trial jury, that doesn't mean the alleged actions weren't taken. Statutes of limitations prevent criminal charges, but not administrative discipline. Further, as neither commissioners nor I sat on that grand jury, we don't know why it made certain choices, or even whether it heard all the witnesses it should have heard.
I can't make a reasoned decision on Mr. Barela's guilt unless and until I read the entire investigatory file. I won't rely on others' varying accounts of the facts.

A seasoned magistrate, who has a law degree and is not known (at least by me) to be aligned with any party in county government's civil war, signed the warrants. A seasoned and hard-working prosecutor believed this was a good case. These facts would have weakened Barela's false-arrest claim.

I know too much and too little. I know that Vigil had extraneous reasons to want Barela arrested and convicted, but did those reasons motivate the Sheriff's (mis)conduct? I know that other officials might wish to rub Vigil's nose in this mess by settling generously with Barela; but did those wishes help bring about the settlement? 

I watched the County fight tooth and nail against other employees. It offered no viable settlements to Jorge Granados or Kim Stewart. When two juries gave them ringing endorsements, the County appealed, on dubious grounds. (New Mexico Association of Counties was apparently making decisions in those cases, not the County. NMAC invoked a contractual exclusion to refuse coverage against Barela's claim, leaving the County on its own. Thus it's probably not fair to conclude that the County dealt more generously with Barela because he was one of the gang or knew where the bodies were buried.)

Did an overzealous Vigil screw this up? Did political considerations lessen prosecutorial vigor? Was embarrassing Vigil a motive for the settlement or just a happy by-product for some county officials?
I don't know. I do know that Barela is neither as evil as some detractors charge nor as guiltless as some supporters say. Most of us aren't.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News and other newspapers this morning, Sunday, 11 September.  It's also up on the newspaper's website (supposed to be, anyway) and will soon be up on KRWG-TV's website.]
[September 11!  It snuck up on me this year, that this was the 15th anniversary of that terrible morning.  I was actually in the Library of Congress that morning, researching.  An underground passage away from Congress.  They told us we had to leave -- but not why.  But people knew.  As I motorcycled away from the Capitol, toward where I stayed, there was a humongous traffic jam, of course.  I was grateful for the motorcycle's small size and maneuverability.  At supper that night, we could see the smoke from the Pentagon, still.  For days, people tended to stay in their houses, and numerous military helicopters swarmed overhead.]
[The next morning I motorcycled downtown.  Almost no one was out, except police and military folks.  I had to park further from the Lincoln Memorial than usual.  Security.  But I could walk to it. It was dawn.  None of the usual tourists and joggers.  Just me and the cops and soldiers -- and this one guy, doing his job.  While everyone else was trembling at home, in fear of going down to where the bad guys might strike again, he was just doing his job:]

[I should have written about September 11th in this morning's column.  And a glance at the morning paper, in which Steve Pearce misuses the heroism of everyday people by suggesting it shows that everything is Barack Obama's fault, tells me I'll remedy that omission next Sunday.]

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