Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
In 2015, the state Legislature allocated $21,400 to Torrance County to be used for sheriff’s office vehicles.
Authorities say that then-Sheriff Heath White – now a magistrate judge – used at least some of that money to buy parts for his own truck.
“What angers me the most is this is not just a fraud case. He weakened public safety in his own community,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “These are investments that are supposed to be going to weapons for officers and parts for vehicles, to improve response time and save lives, yet we found these automobile parts in his own personal vehicle.”
A New Mexico State Police investigation found that the former Sheriff of the Year used more than $162,000 of public money to buy personal firearms, tools, vehicle parts, security systems, yeti coolers, night vision goggles and more. Only $37,121 worth of property has been recovered, according to court documents.
Officers who searched White’s home said they even found a generator that had been reported stolen from the Moriarty Lions Club in November.
White, 41, is charged with six felonies, including embezzlement over $20,000, making or permitting false public voucher and receiving stolen property. If convicted, he faces up to 17 years in prison. He has not been arrested but is expected to attend an arraignment in Torrance County.
White’s attorney, Sam Bregman, disputed the charges, saying his client “has done nothing illegal.”
“I look forward to getting the facts out in front of the jury and clearing his good name,” Bregman said. “We’ve already done our preliminary investigation, and there’s a defense to all of these allegations.”
White served two terms as sheriff, ending in December 2018, and was the chairman of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association in 2017 to 2018. He was awarded the inaugural “Sheriff of the Year” by the association in 2013 and received the same honor the following year by the Western States Sheriffs’ Association.
He was an Albuquerque Police Department officer from 2001 until he resigned in July 2004.
Following his time as sheriff, White was elected as a Torrance County magistrate judge. He was suspended from the bench after the allegations against him became public, and Balderas said the case has been referred to the Judicial Standards Commission to determine the next steps.
Balderas also referred the case to the Law Enforcement Academy Board because White is still a licensed officer.
State Police began investigating White for embezzlement in early March, according to a statement of probable cause filed in Torrance County Magistrate Court.
In interviews with investigators, White’s administrative assistant said she was frequently asked to generate purchase orders for White and that he would either pick up an item locally and return with an invoice or have her order it online. She said items ordered online were shipped directly to White’s business, the Old Mill Feed Store, supposedly because the items could be unloaded there more easily than at the sheriff’s office.
Officers found several firearms and firearm parts bought with county money at White’s home and at his store, but Balderas said there are others that have not been recovered.
“Assault rifles, several pistols, were not located through the commercial process of the store,” Balderas said. “They are simply not accounted for. We’re aware of his business and some of his other interests, but I remain concerned that some of those weapons weren’t recovered.”
State Auditor Brian Colón said the investigation raised additional questions about whether appropriate checks and balances were in place at the county to prevent fraud and abuse. He said that, over the last three years, the auditor’s office had found at least two instances of insufficient oversight over the inventory and that the county had failed to correct the issues.
“When we fail to address those issues, we end up with circumstances like this,” he said.
Colón’s office has sent a letter to the county manager to “highlight significant concerns” raised by the investigation into White.
“My concerns are with respect to the sufficiency or existence of internal controls of the county pertaining to inventory, the financial implications of unaccounted inventory, and compliance with state and federal rules and regulations applicable to acquisition and disposition of assets,” Colón wrote in the letter.
Torrance County Manager Wayne Johnson, who was hired in January, was out of the country and said he had not seen the charges or the letter specifically. But he said the county will cooperate with any investigation and meet with the Office of the State Auditor.
“The very fact that any county property was delivered to a home or place of business – whether a county official or employee – that’s inappropriate,” Johnson said. “We need to strengthen policies in that regard, and we’re committed to doing so.”