District Court Judge Kenneth Martinez reversed his order to seal a Torrance County government corruption case on Tuesday after the Journal and other news organizations objected to the closed proceedings.
Martinez had sealed not only the preliminary hearing to decide whether to send the case to trial, but the criminal complaint and other documents associated with the case against Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley and contractor Christopher M. Valdez.
Martinez had given no reason for the action prior to Tuesday.
Mathew Bradburn, Valdez’s attorney, and Ansley’s attorney, Michael Alarid, had asked for the case to be sealed because of prosecution allegations of an inappropriate sexual relationship between the defendants, which the defendants deny. The attorneys argued that those allegations could taint any potential jury pool should the case go to trial.
A public official charged with almost a half-million dollars of fraud involving public funds was in court Monday for the start of a three-day hearing to decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.
But there was nothing public about the preliminary hearing for Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley and contractor Christopher M. Valdez of CCS Construction in front of 2nd District Judge Kenneth Martinez. The judge has not only sealed the court record and closed the hearing, but also told participants they can’t talk about the case, which was brought by the office of Attorney General Gary King.
An Albuquerque Journal reporter in the courtroom before the hearing started was escorted out by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies.
The judge, through his administrative assistant, refused to speak to a reporter about reasons for the sealing.
Ansley and Valdez were criminally charged in Torrance County in a March 2013 complaint with 10 counts of fraud, making or permitting a false public voucher and conspiracy involving four projects in 2007 and 2008 – the Torreon fire station and playground, the Duran fire substation and Torrance County voting machine storage.
According to the allegations, a series of change orders was used to inflate costs on the projects for a total of over $470,000.
Lawyers with long experience in criminal law said they had never heard of a criminal hearing, other than one for a juvenile, or a portion of a hearing involving confidential informants, being sealed.
The Albuquerque Journal, the Mountain View Telegraph and KRQE News 13 filed an emergency motion late Monday to open the courtroom to the public and to unseal the court file.
Attorneys for the news organizations contend Martinez did not take steps required by New Mexico law to close the proceedings.
“In New Mexico, preliminary hearings are open to the public,” attorney Greg Williams said. “The law only allows hearings in criminal matters to be closed under very limited circumstances. Those are not present in this case, which involves a county manger allegedly involved in misappropriation of public funds.”
Williams and Charles Peifer are representing the Journal and the Telegraph. Martin Esquivel signed the emergency petition for KRQE News 13.
Esquivel said his client believes closing the courtroom should be a last resort.
“Before doing so, it’s important to follow the proper process established under First Amendment case law,” he said.
Moved from Torrance
The case was transferred to Martinez after judges in the 7th Judicial District, which includes Torrance County, were recused. But no record of the district court case, or Martinez’s assignment, appears on the nmcourts.com website. In fact, the last entry on the public website is dated April 23, 2013.
Any documents detailing activity since that date have vanished from the internal court file available for public viewing, as well as from the statewide public court website.
The Mountain View Telegraph obtained a copy of the criminal complaint and statement of probable cause before the matter was sealed. It was unclear who requested the sealing.
Ansley’s attorney Michael Alarid told the Journal on Monday he could not talk about it when asked if the defense had requested it.
Meanwhile, State Auditor Hector Balderas said Monday that release of his agency’s audit of 18 projects involving CCS Construction in Torrance County has been delayed until the end of the year. He said the audit of projects that date from 2007 to 2012 showed nearly $1 million of questionable practices on the part of Torrance County officials.
“While our report has been in its final stages for several months, the filing of criminal charges delayed the final release,” Balderas said.
His agency’s auditors wanted to ensure their review included the projects that were the subject of the attorney general’s charges.
“This will be a public report,” he added.
Ansley, who previously worked at the Department of Finance and Administration’s local government division as a management analyst, was hired as Torrance County manager two days after leaving the DFA in 2007.
In a probable cause statement filed with the criminal complaint, special agent Donald Jochem of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office says Ansley’s background and experience make her “fully knowledgeable of the principles of government procurement” and state rules governing it.
She nevertheless approved change orders that allegedly inflated the costs substantially, Jochem’s statement says.
For instance, Valdez’s company, CCS Construction, ultimately invoiced the county more than $14 a square foot for concrete work that should have cost $4 to $6 a square foot, and a septic system and water line at the Terreon fire station that should have cost about $5,000 were billed at $23,000, according to his statement.
For the playground, the statement says Ansley awarded work “having significant value” to Valdez without a bid. Valdez then billed over $65,000 on the project, which involved about $10,000 in material costs, the document says.
During Monday’s hearing, Torrance County commissioners and the county clerk, along with Ansley family members, sat on benches outside the courtroom – but not all were there as witnesses.
Some commissioners showed up as a demonstration of their support for Ansley, who was retained as county manager even after she was criminally charged.
Torrance County Commissioner Lonnie Freyburger told the Mountain View Telegraph that none of the commissioners there were there to testify.
“It surprised all of us to see the other commissioners. I certainly hadn’t talked to them and didn’t realize they were going to be there,” he said. Freyburger said he does not believe Ansley did anything wrong.
Commissioner Leanne Tapia said she and others had prayed with Ansley before the hearing.
“I think it’s good that they sealed the case. That way people aren’t running around spreading rumors. One or two people in there say one thing and it all gets out of control,” she said.
Torrance County Clerk Linda Jaramillo said she believes commissioners from the period during which the fraud allegedly occurred have been subpoenaed to testify.