SANTA FE – Last month’s controversial drug sweep at Taos Ski Valley was the result of U.S. Forest Service officers trying to make an annual quota for citations, contends a federal worker advocacy group that released two memos from the Forest Service on Monday.
In one memo, issued last November, a U.S. Forest Service official says the national leader of the agency’s law enforcement operation expected each officer to issue at least 100 citations a year – and that less than a third in the Southwest region had met that goal.
Then three days after the Journal reported that Forest Service agents conducted the drug sweep on Feb. 22, which resulted in tickets for a number of minor violations including marijuana possession and traffic infractions, another memo came out.
This one, from the Forest Service’s deputy director for law enforcement and investigations and dated March 4, said supervisors should make sure “no quotas are being developed” and that while officers’ performance measurements should be “meaningful,” they shouldn’t include ticket quotas or ” ‘expectations’ that can be construed as quotas.”
The memos were released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based whistle-blower protection group for federal workers.
“Forest Service rangers are whipsawed by contradictory orders from an apparently clueless leadership,” PEER’s executive Jeff Ruch said. “The director demands a quota; his deputy says no.”
“The larger message from what we can tell, is this is one of the most screwed up organizations we have ever encountered,” Ruch said.
A Forest Service spokesman declined to comment until he could discuss the memos and allegations with Forest Service officials.
The Feb. 22 drug sweep in the parking lot of Taos Ski Valley drew sharp criticism from the ski area’s management, skiers and former Gov. Gary Johnson, a ski valley resident and libertarian advocate for drug legalization.
Robin Poague, of the Forest Service’s Albuquerque office and special agent in charge for the agency’s Southwestern Region, has said he was not pleased with the “tone” the operation presented to the public, was not sure who authorized it out of the Albuquerque office and said there would be an inquiry.
Memo to captains
Aban Lucero, regional patrol commander for Forest Service law enforcement in Albuquerque, sent the November memo that seemed to set a 100-ticket annual quota to Forest Service patrol captains.
Lucero wrote that David Farrell, the Forest Service’s national director of law enforcement and investigations, “has clearly indicated his expectations of LEOs (law enforcement officers) issuing a minimum number of 100 VNs (violation notices) per year.” Lucero added, “As you can see we have approximately 70 percent (of officers) who fall below that number.”
“Please take a look at the numbers and share with your LEOs. You know better than I do if there is reason for concern,” Lucero’s memo said. He did not return a call for comment.
The Journal’s article on the Taos Ski Valley drug sweep was published on March 1. On March 4, Tracy S. Perry, the Forest Service’s national deputy director for law enforcement, issued a memo about implementing performance plans and measures for officers.
“To ensure there is no confusion,” Perry wrote, supervisors should ensure no quotas are developed and that “we should all be consistent in our messaging” that ticket quotas are not appropriate.
PEER is currently conducting a 2014 survey sent to 750 Forest Service law enforcement officers and support staff nationwide. “A number of them used the essay (part) to complain about the quotas – distorting how their time is spent or how their performance is measured,” said Ruch. “They believe quotas exist.”
Some of the critics cite the Taos raid as a “by-product of citation quota pressure,” said a PEER statement provided by Ruch. “We believe Mr. Perry’s memo was a way to dampen down further negative coverage and we regard it as a cover-your-ass memo and we have seen that before,” Ruch added.
Mark Chavez, a Forest Service spokesman in Albuquerque, said he needed to speak with Forest Service law enforcement officials before he could comment on the quota issue.
Rio Arriba complaints
A Rio Arriba County citizens group also has complained recently about Forest Service police actions.
The El Rito Citizens Caucus sent a letter Jan. 22 to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, complaining about “Gestapo intimidation tactics” by the Forest Service against the people who live on land grants and in other parts of northern New Mexico, citing arrests for violations such as DWI, lack of car insurance or registration and similar violations.
The letter said Forest Service agents can’t legally enforce state law without a commission from a sheriff. Rio Arriba Sheriff Tommy Rodella has declined to commission the federal agents.
Mark Chavez, a Forest Service spokesman in Albuquerque, said in a prepared statement that Forest Service agents can in fact issue federal violation notices to enforce state law on Forest Service lands and roads, but also said the Forest Service “does not issue citations for violations of state law unless its law enforcement officers are deputized to do so.”
“The violation notices recently issued by the Forest Service at the Taos Ski Valley for alleged motor vehicle violations were all federal violation notices,” Chavez added.
Chavez said he hadn’t seen the letter from the Citizens Caucus.