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Hijacked emails fueled political battle

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Just over a year ago, political opponents of Gov. Susana Martinez began releasing selected emails, one at a time or in small batches, that had been diverted from the website Martinez used for her 2010 campaign.

It began with the release of a single email in late May of 2012 dealing with a request by Martinez’s political adviser to the Public Education Department for a list of addresses of nonunion teachers around the state — a request the PED says was denied.

Subsequent emails would deal with topics ranging from the controversial racino lease at the Downs at Albuquerque to a personnel case involving a fired Corrections Department worker.

The common thread: All of the emails had been sent to susana2010.com, which was no longer being used by Martinez or her staff after they had transitioned into the Governor’s Office.

Martinez protested that the emails had been stolen. Her critics insisted they had come by them legally, but initially refused to say how. The only hint of the source was the email name/address that appeared at the top of one of the emails: omarravenherst@gmail.com.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013.

A former Martinez campaign worker, Jamie Estrada, has been charged in a 14-count federal indictment with hijacking the website and diverting the emails.

Omarravenherst@gmail.com turns out to be Democratic political consultant Jason Loera, who apparently got the emails from Estrada. From there, they ended up in the hands of the governor’s political foes.

Reason for Estrada departure in dispute

Email scorecard

Loera, who was indicted on child pornography charges after FBI agents investigating the email case found photos of children being sexually assaulted by adults, worked with now state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman on a political action committee called Grassroots New Mexico.

The name omarravenherst first surfaced on an email attached by Bregman to a document in a state personnel case in which he was representing a fired Corrections Department worker. Bregman was using the document in an attempt to show the Governor’s Office was involved directly in a personnel case involving a classified employee.

In one ironic twist in the story, Martinez critics had the emails, but the people to whom they were sent at that address didn’t. They had no access to the account, because it was controlled by Estrada.

Omar Ravenherst

Education secretary-designate Hanna Skandera had forwarded an email to Martinez in May 2012, using the email address susana.m@susana2010.com.

The email involved a request by the governor’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, to collect a list of nonunion teachers and their addresses throughout the state. He later said he wanted them to use to counter material sent out by unions, which had access to the names and addresses for both union and nonunion teachers in many districts, including APS.

The email was made public by the union-backed Independent Source PAC and Martinez critic Michael Corwin, who called for Attorney General Gary King to investigate the use of state resources for political purposes. The AG’s Office appears to have made inquiries, but nothing came of the request.

The email did, however, trigger a debate about the use of private emails for state business, and Martinez subsequently issued a directive that all executive branch employees would use the state email system for official business.

In late June, Independent Source PAC and Corwin released three more emails, this time about the 25-year lease between the Downs at Albuquerque and Expo New Mexico. The 2011 emails were from Downs attorney Pat Rogers, a Republican national committeeman, to then-Martinez Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangiolosi asking for a meeting, complaining about a State Fair commissioner and the scheduling of a commission meeting.

Again Corwin called for Attorney General King to investigate the Downs lease deal. Cangiolosi never received the emails.

Martinez defended the Downs lease process but asked the FBI and U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales to investigate the emails, alleging they had been hacked and stolen.

In August, more emails from Rogers to Martinez Chief of Staff Keith Gardner at the old campaign address were released.

These involved his observations and complaints about the search for a new president at the University of New Mexico. The emails were routed to Gardner’s susana2010.com email.

An email from Rogers with a controversial reference to George Armstrong Custer was in that batch. Progressive groups and some Native Americans cried foul, and the governor said Rogers’ comments were not appropriate.

Rogers said they were attempted humor, but he resigned from the Modrall law firm, where he was a longtime partner.

In September, another email surfaced in a State Personnel Board hearing when it was attached to a motion filed by Bregman. He argued that he should be able to take sworn testimony from Martinez in the case of fired Corrections Department officer Larry Flynn because the email showed she had received a State Police report on the agency’s investigation of Flynn.

The email was to the old campaign address, but it showed Bregman had received it from omarravenherst@gmail.com.

Corwin said at the time that his PAC obtained the emails from a “source” who had bought the campaign website at an auction after the website ownership had expired.

The federal indictment against Estrada does not mention an auction. It alleges Estrada renewed the domain, gained access and redirected the emails to a website and server under his control.

Corwin’s Independent Source PAC issued a recent statement: “This indictment in no way minimizes the apparent illegal conduct by Martinez and her administration as identified in the emails on which we previously reported.”

There have been no charges filed against any Martinez administration officials in connection with subjects raised in any of the emails.

The PAC said in its statement that it would continue to protect the source’s identity.

FBI probe

On Sept. 28, U.S. Attorney Gonzales confirmed in a letter to Martinez that the FBI was investigating how the susana2010.com emails were obtained. In fact, FBI agents were already serving search warrants.

In December, King released hundreds of the susana2010.com emails — including those of a personal nature, such as bank statements — in response to news media requests under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Corwin’s PAC had turned them over to King’s office at the request of investigators and Assistant Attorney General Chris Lackman after Corwin had asked the AG to investigate various matters addressed in the emails.

King, who is seeking his party’s nod to run against presumptive GOP nominee Martinez in the 2014 election, said he was unaware of the federal investigation into whether the emails were illegally obtained — although the U.S. attorney’s letter two months earlier had been the subject of news stories.

He defended the release, arguing at various times that the emails showed state officials conducting business on private emails and that he had no choice under IPRA.

He did not address the personal nature of many of the released emails, nor did he address the fact that the intended recipients didn’t get the emails at the susana2010.com address.

Diversion

The website domain susana2010.com was established on GoDaddy.com for a two-year period by an early political supporter of Martinez in 2009. He donated the website, including a username and password, to Martinez’s campaign organization.

The username and password were required to make changes to the website, including creating email accounts, posting content and renewing ownership.

Estrada joined the Martinez campaign in July 2009 as acting campaign manager and received a copy of the username and password.

Estrada left the campaign in December 2009. The ownership of the website was scheduled to expire on July 18, 2011. The campaign had exclusive rights to renew the ownership for 42 days after the expiration date.

The indictment alleges Estrada used the username and password to renew the website and then redirected emails to another website he had established.

As a result, the indictments says, Estrada had access to emails intended for Martinez and others with email addresses on the susana2010.com website.

People in the Martinez circle had thought the account was no longer operational and were unaware for some time that emails sent to that address were being diverted.

Estrada says he has done nothing wrong and is not charged with distributing the emails to others. FBI agents believe that role was played by Jason Loera, who now faces charges of downloading child pornography.

In November, agents were following the trail of emails sent from the address omarravenherst@gmail.com. Omar Kayyam Ravenhurst (different spelling from the email address) was the fictitious name used by 1960s California counterculture writer Kerry Wendell Thornley.

Search warrant affidavits show agents initially thought the owner of the “Omar” email account was Estrada. But after searching Estrada’s computers, they concluded the omarravenherst@gmail.com email distributing the Martinez emails belonged to Loera, a political consultant for a group with close ties to Bregman. Loera was a paid consultant to the Grassroots New Mexico PAC. Bregman wrote an opinion piece in 2012 on behalf of the Grassroots PAC that listed Loera as the media contact for the organization.

Bregman has not responded to Journal requests for comment but he did respond to comments made by Martinez on her Facebook page.

In a letter to Democrats and the media, Bregman wrote, “For the Governor to suggest or imply that I have done anything improper or violated any law is reprehensible.”

Estrada is scheduled to make his first appearance in federal court on Monday.

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