The Attorney General’s Office is warning women who competed for the Miss New Mexico crown, sash and scholarship that they may be at risk of financial exploitation – a caution that could have national implications.
Attorney General Hector Balderas is expected to issue a fraud alert advising former contestants that their private information – including financial data, Social Security numbers and home addresses – may have been breached after a search of ousted Miss New Mexico executive director Greg Smith’s cattle ranch in Elida last month uncovered the information among his personal effects.
Balderas classified the breach as “high risk” and said the information does not appear to have been safeguarded and should not have remained in Smith’s possession.
“There was a clear failure here of internal self-regulation,” Balderas said. “There is more protection making a purchase at Dillard’s than here. This organization was not being operated as an educational and scholarship program should be, and as a result there is risk for exploitation.”
It’s unclear how many contestants may have been affected or whether the breach involves only contestants involved when Smith was executive director, from 2015 to February.
Smith, a 55-year-old cattle rancher turned pageant queen wrangler, remains under criminal investigation by the AG’s Office after a state district judge found probable cause that Smith committed fraud, embezzlement and money laundering during his tenure as Miss New Mexico executive director.
While director, it appears Smith underwent little scrutiny from his local board – which investigators say was largely fictitious – or authorities with the national Miss America Organization, even after several contestants came forward to complain about his troubling behaviors.
“Clearly this is not a onetime thing that the organization can sweep under a rug,” Balderas said. “It is a wake-up call.”
He did not have a timetable for when criminal charges would be filed but said the investigation is “moving very fast.”
Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Miss America Organization released the following statement: “In speaking with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, the Miss America Organization has been repeatedly assured that it is not the subject of wrongdoing in connection with this licensee. Since this incident occurred under a previous administration, tighter controls have been, and continue to be, put in place to review licensee actions.”
Rhonda Haynes, who took over the Miss New Mexico pageant after Smith’s termination, said she is committed to running the organization under the same rules she and the members of her board followed when they oversaw Otero County pageants.
“I myself have several years of running nonprofit organizations and we have a very well respected accounting company taking care of our finances,” she said. “We will be transparent and trustworthy.”
Those of you who read this column know that some of the allegations against Smith, as revealed in the 14-page affidavit filed last month, include leaving the organization with at least $54,419.75 in unpaid scholarships and vendor bills, overcharging contestants for photo packages and dormitory stays during competitions, forcing contestants to raise money by selling raffle tickets for items never raffled off and using organization funds for personal use such as buying cattle semen.
Smith came under the scrutiny of the Attorney General’s Office after contestants – including former Miss New Mexico Stephanie Chavez and former Miss New Mexico Outstanding Teen Madison Belcher – came forward.
They say Smith exhibited bullying and other disturbing behaviors, refused to pay scholarships and pageant monies awarded to the women and that their complaints to the national organization fell on deaf ears.
“It’s ironic that the organization that is supposed to give women their voices kind of silenced mine, especially by Greg,” said Chavez, who reigned as Miss New Mexico in 2016. “He tried to isolate me, control me, shame me.”
Belcher was also retaliated against by Smith, her mother said.
“She was supposed to be honored for a year for her accomplishment in this program but instead was cheated financially and, even worse, shamed publicly,” Elizabeth Belcher said. “As a mom, I can swallow the money squandered, but I cannot swallow Googling her name and reading lies about her because of this creep.”
Both families say they believe more contestants and their families have information on Smith that they have not yet shared with the AG’s Office.
“We as parents tend to think of, ‘How does this affect my daughter’s experience?’ ” said Dennis Chavez, Stephanie’s father. “But the message going forward is: Look at the red flags, question that. There may be more going on.”
Balderas suggested that contestants contact the current Miss New Mexico officials for an accounting of their personal information and how the organization is being run and to report any victimization or fraudulent activity to his office.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.