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Wheels of justice are finally turning for pageant winners

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been more than two years since Miss New Mexico went public in this column with accusations of misogyny and malfeasance against the pageant’s executive director, but now those accusations are part of an 18-count indictment accusing the director of turning the state pageant organization into his own crime racket.

Greg Smith, 56, was indicted by a Roosevelt County grand jury Thursday on felony charges of embezzlement, fraud, racketeering, tax evasion and issuing worthless checks during his time as executive director of the Miss New Mexico Scholarship Organization from 2015 to 2018. Arraignment is set for Aug. 21 in Portales.

The case was investigated by a joint task force with the state Attorney General’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office of the 9th Judicial District, which covers Roosevelt and Curry counties.

But the investigation came about because of two pageant queens who risked their crowns to come forward.

Miss New Mexico Stephanie Chavez signs her name to the map signed by other contestants in the Miss America pageant held last September in Atlantic City. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chavez)

“He wanted my face wiped away from the title, brushed under the rug,” Stephanie Chavez, Miss New Mexico of 2016, said of Smith. “But there was never any question, never any hesitation. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that if I didn’t speak out this could happen to another girl.”

Madison Belcher, Miss New Mexico Outstanding Teen that same year, says she endured a similar experience for speaking out.

Madison Belcher, the 2016 Miss New Mexico Outstanding Teen. (Courtesy of Madison Belcher)

“My name, my actions, and my desires were falsified and slandered,” said Belcher, a Texico native and a student at Texas Tech University. “I was threatened with being dethroned less than a month after the sash was placed across my shoulder. The manipulation, duplicity and surreptitious actions I witnessed starkly contrasted the glamorous image most individuals associate with gowns and heels.”

Smith, an Elida cattle rancher and longtime pageant aficionado, is accused of funneling thousands of dollars in scholarship money into his own pockets rather than pay the money to pageant winners. According to a news release issued Thursday by the Attorney General’s Office, Smith was provided about $21,000 in scholarship money from the Miss America Organization to pay winners from 2014 after he became executive director, but the winners never received the funds.

In addition, Smith is charged with failing to pay scholarship money owed to Chavez, Belcher and Miss New Mexico 2017 Taylor Ray. Although the indictment doesn’t make clear the total amount of scholarship money Smith is accused of embezzling, Chavez has said she was owed $6,500 in scholarships from Miss New Mexico.

Smith is also accused of deceiving contestants in the 2015 and 2016 pageants held in Portales by charging them $25 a night to stay in dormitories at Eastern New Mexico University when the university charges only $12.50 a night, pocketing more than $11,000 for himself.

Other charges include failing to pay more than $1,000 intended for wardrobe costs for winners in 2015 and 2016, bouncing five checks totalling $8,659.56 and attempting to evade or defeat paying taxes in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in Roosevelt County.

Smith, a man who fancies a black cowboy hat and a rhinestone Miss New Mexico lapel pin, has been under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office since at least May 2017 when Chavez came forward in this column describing bullying, sexist, racist and otherwise disturbing behaviors and his refusal to pay out pageant money. Last October, agents with the state Attorney General’s Office raided Smith’s cattle ranch, seizing bins of pageant documents, computers, a camera and a cellphone. The raid was also featured in this column.

Previous court records indicate that Smith has filed for bankruptcy twice, was sued by his bankruptcy attorney for unpaid legal fees, sued for fraud over bounced checks and arrested in 2002 in Texas on a felony theft charge that was later dropped over a missing check. Bank records listed in the search warrant affidavit also uncovered numerous questionable purchases, withdrawals, transfers and overdrafts involving the Miss New Mexico accounts and Smith’s personal accounts – including a $1,700 transfer from a pageant account to purchase cattle semen.

Smith did not respond to emails for comment, and no attorney is listed in court records.

But Chavez and Belcher had plenty to say about the man they say tried to steal their dreams, as well as their scholarship money.

The crown, they say, isn’t for cowards.

“If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, speak up, don’t be afraid of retaliation,” said Chavez of Albuquerque, who next month enters basic training for the Army National Guard.

“I encourage young women to stand up against wrongdoings, no matter if they stand alone or seem to stand forever,” Belcher said. “Further, I encourage Miss America to uphold their promise to empower young women and act justly when these women speak honestly.”

No wonder they’re winners.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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