A decision by 3rd Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio to dismiss embezzlement charges against a former Sunland Park contractor accused of misusing $262,000 of the city’s money has bewildered prosecutors and investigators.
While D’Antonio has called the case “weak” and “garbage,” prosecutors and investigators say the case was ready to go to trial.
“We put a lot of man hours behind that investigation, and I stand behind my investigators’ work,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said last week.
A prosecutor familiar with the case said he was “absolutely” ready to try it.
Phone calls and emails to D’Antonio last week seeking comment on his decision to drop charges were not returned.
Annette Morales, head of a community planning consulting agency called Medius Inc., was arrested in August 2012 and charged with embezzlement and fraud. Morales, who had a $1 million contract with Sunland Park to provide a “strategic framework” for city growth related to a planned international crossing on the Mexican border, was alleged to have defrauded the border city of more than $262,000 for services that were not documented or were outside the scope of the contract. Morales has denied any wrongdoing.
The charges were filed amid a corruption scandal that eventually ensnared mayor-elect and former City Councilman Daniel Salinas and 20 other defendants in a wide-ranging investigation of Sunland Park’s municipal government.
D’Antonio, who took office in January after ousting incumbent District Attorney Amy Orlando – a close political ally and appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez, had asked state Attorney General Gary King to consider prosecuting some of those cases.
D’Antonio consulted King after an El Paso television station suggested he had a conflict of interest because he accepted campaign donations from several defense attorneys representing Sunland Park defendants.
Morales had contributed $180 to D’Antonio’s campaign, and $200 to Orlando’s, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Shortly after taking office, D’Antonio asked 12th Judicial District Attorney Diana Martwick to prosecute the Morales case, Martwick said last week.
She said she agreed to take the case, and received the case files from D’Antonio’s office. Although such requests are usually accompanied by a written appointment of the special prosecutor, Martwick said she never received the document from D’Antonio.
About two weeks after receiving the files, she said, D’Antonio’s office called her again requesting that the files be returned. Martwick said she hand-delivered the files to D’Antonio’s office on Jan. 30.
“I never did receive an official reason as to why he (D’Antonio) wanted them back, or why I did not receive the appointment as a special prosecutor in that particular case,” Martwick said, adding that it was very unusual to have a case taken back.
Martwick said the move surprised her because her office had handled three other cases for D’Antonio’s office, and successfully prosecuted each. None of those cases was related to the Sunland Park scandals.
Scot Key, Martwick’s deputy district attorney, said he was very familiar with the Morales case because he had been chief deputy district attorney under Orlando before moving over to the 12th Judicial District.
Key said he was “absolutely” ready to take the case to trial before D’Antonio took it back.
“We accepted it with every intention to taking it to trial,” Key said last week.
D’Antonio’s office formally dropped the charges against Morales on Sept. 10.
Last month, D’Antonio told other news media that he dropped charges against Morales because the case was “extremely weak” and “garbage” – terms that aren’t sitting well with New Mexico State Police investigators.
“I’m baffled,” Kassetas said Thursday.
“Ultimately, it’s the DA’s prerogative, but when there’s $260,000 of possible fraud, I’d rather err on the side of picking through the case with a fine-toothed comb,” he said.
Kassetas said State Police were unaware that D’Antonio had declined to prosecute the case until it appeared in newspapers. If a district attorney has a problem with a case, Kassetas said, they will usually consult with investigators in an effort to strengthen it.
“My issue is that the State Police have not sat down and discussed the intricacies of the case with the district attorney (D’Antonio). …We don’t know what his definition of a ‘weak’ case is. Is it an investigative problem that we could possibly address, or is it just the fact that he doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to prosecute?”
“We had two other district attorneys look at this,” Kassetas said. “Both felt this was a prosecutable case.” He said those DAs were Orlando – who now works as an associate deputy director for juvenile justice services in the state Children, Youth and Families Department – and Martwick.