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Good times, bad times in Rio Arriba

Investigative documents from the state Attorney General’s Office detail an investigation of procurement practices at the Española Public Schools.

Yes, there’s good news out of Rio Arriba County.

There are signs that the county is making progress in fighting opioid overdoses, a chronic and tragic scourge certainly not unique to Rio Arriba, but one that the county has struggled mightily with for decades, racking up nationally high rates of overdose deaths.

Overdose cases at Presbyterian Española Hospital decreased from 166 to 104, and there was only one such death there from 2018 to 2019, according to the state Department of Health.

There has also been an overall drop in OD deaths in the county over the past few years, thanks to efforts that include the use of the naxolone overdose-reversal drug, sending addicts to treatment rather than jail, and a less bureaucratic and more collaborative system of care.

Dedicated efforts by such good people as Lauren Riechelt – the county’s indefatigable Health and Human Services director – are paying off. They are showing there really are ways to push back on what has heretofore been an intractable problem in northern New Mexico.

But a recent report by Journal North reporter Edmundo Carrillo suggests an equally dedicated effort may be needed to address another issue in the county – public corruption.

Through a public records request, Carrillo obtained investigative documents from the state Attorney General’s Office in the case against married couple Lianne Martinez and Joseph Torres, a former lobbyist for Rio Arriba County. They each face numerous counts of fraud and racketeering, for which they could go to prison for up to 33 years.

The documents say their company, Enviro-Kleen, made about $18,000 in illegal profit by overcharging Española Public Schools on six different invoices. Essentially, the AG’s Office alleges that Enviro-Kleen was doing something the school district could do itself – order janitorial supplies – and then adding a mark-up to the price.

“Based on available information, Enviro-Kleen does not ship, transport, package, install or manufacture any janitorial supplies,” the AG documents say. The company had the school district as its only client and didn’t have a commercial location. Martinez and Torrez also had other companies that did business with the school district.

The defense lawyer for Martinez and Torrez has said the overcharges by Enviro-Kleen were a mistake and have been paid back.

But the AG’s documents more broadly portray a corrupt culture that extends beyond the school district to city and county government officials. Former County Commission Barney Trujillo faces his own charges – three counts of unlawful interest in a public contract and failing to disclose campaign contributions in relation to a questionable marketing contract he had with the school district.

Several companies were keeping invoices under $5,000 – some of them at $4,999 – to avoid requiring school board approval. There were also complaints that work wasn’t getting done and that products weren’t being delivered to schools.

EPS employee Paula Johnson came upon the questionable procurement practices when she conducted an audit of the district’s warehouse in April 2015.

“In particular, there is a pattern of vendors that are politically connected submitting multiple invoices that are just under the EPS discretionary purchasing threshold of $5,000,” the documents say.

Johnson said she brought the irregularities to the attention of then-Superintendent Danny Trujillo, who ordered her to shut down the audit. She then went to the Attorney General’s Office.

Johnson said the school district’s procurement policy was all about political connections. There was “a pattern of politically connected vendors receiving non-competitive contracts/purchase orders, often several, for services just under the discretionary spending limit of $5,000,” an agent for the AG’s Office wrote.

There also are allegations of school board members getting kickbacks.

Fortunately, there have been political changes since the events described in the investigative documents took place. The school board majority flipped and local stalwart Bobbie Gutierrez, formerly superintendent in Santa Fe, appeared to right the ship at Española schools during her subsequent tenure. Barney Trujillo, term-limited as a county commissioner, is out of power, having failed as a candidate for state representative.

And there are other good signs in Rio Arriba. Northern New Mexico College, another institution where incompetence and worse reigned in the past, has gotten its act together under president Richard Bailey and is working with Los Alamos National Laboratory to expand its offerings. The planned Lowrider Museum should provide a way for Española to open the world’s eyes to its vibrant local culture.

But it’s just sad that a community that struggles with difficult issues, such as drugs and addiction, has been saddled with public officials accused of making self-enrichment a priority.