Editor’s note: This story incorrectly attributed and appended a quote from the Lordsburg police chief about community policing to a quote from an affidavit filed by an FBI agent. It has been corrected.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
FBI and Homeland Security investigators looking into alleged overtime cheating in the Lordsburg Police Department got a few surprises when they checked a key suspect’s official police cellphone.
“What is public corruption” was the topic of a Feb. 6 internet search made from the phone. “What is the federal statute of limitations for public corruption,” was the query on Feb. 21. Yet another search sought information as to how the FBI investigates public corruption, according to federal search warrant affidavits.
The targets of the ongoing investigation are two brothers who at one time served as the No. 1 and No. 2 police officers in the southwestern New Mexico city of about 2,400 people.
Arthur De La Garza, a 22-year veteran of the agency, was removed as police chief by the Lordsburg City Council in late January. His younger brother, Elijah De La Garza, was placed on administrative leave with pay in May but received permission from Lordsburg Mayor Robert Barrera to work a second job in the meantime, according to a July 20 search warrant affidavit.
Barrera, who is related to the De La Garza family by marriage, didn’t return repeated requests for a Journal interview last week.
No criminal charges have been filed, but a series of search warrant affidavits filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico allege the brothers have been paid for “many” hours of overtime for federal border security work they didn’t perform.
Federal investigators allege the brothers submitted time sheets containing false information to receive pay from the federal Operation Stonegarden program, which funds local law enforcement agencies that help with border security.
Arthur De La Garza didn’t return a request for comment last week. His brother couldn’t be reached for comment and is reportedly working in Texas.
It was Elijah De La Garza’s phone that showed someone was seeking details of what constitutes “public corruption” – another piece of evidence that raised flags with the FBI.
‘Visible’ presence on border
For nearly 20 years, the Department of Homeland Security has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Stonegarden grant initiative. In its latest allocation, New Mexico is expected to receive nearly $3 million for state and local law enforcement to enhance security on the border.
Of that amount, Lordsburg police, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and State Police were to split about $800,000 in funding over the next several years.
Local law enforcement recipients are supposed to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents deter drug trafficking and protect local communities. Some law enforcement agencies in Texas and Arizona have used the grant money to buy automated license plate readers and acquire surveillance camera towers.
And like in Lordsburg, the funds can also pay overtime for what is supposed to be a “visible” presence of law enforcement along the Mexican border, which is about 75 miles south of Lordsburg.
Officers who participate in Operation Stonegarden are expected to work in the field.
But the FBI investigation has found that during the times when ex-Police Chief Arthur De La Garza claimed Operation Stonegarden overtime, he was sometimes at home or at his mother’s house in Lordsburg.
Federal authorities were unaware of any exception that would allow agents or officers to perform Stonegarden duties at home or in other areas where they would not have a deterring effect, FBI agent Armida Macmanus wrote in one affidavit.
During the initial surveillance of Elijah De La Garza’s blue Ford Explorer, an FBI surveillance team also observed him at “locations inconsistent with police work,” the affidavit said.
In a recently filed search warrant affidavit, the FBI wanted to check whether Elijah De La Garza was out hunting big game on the federal government’s dime.
The federal overtime work can be lucrative for small-town law enforcement officers.
Elijah De La Garza, for example, collected more than $2,000 in Stonegarden pay, before taxes, by claiming about 50 hours of overtime over one 10-day period in early 2021, the affidavit said.
‘Lack of internal oversight’
Congress most recently allocated $90 million to Operation Stonegarden efforts nationwide.
But the grant program, administered by FEMA, has been criticized for a “lack of internal oversight and metrics to show such grants are reducing the nation’s collective risk,” according to a FY 2020 congressional funding bill.
The criticism centered on allegations that FEMA was allowing questionable expenses to be paid to the state and local agencies receiving the grants.
It isn’t clear what prompted the federal public corruption investigation involving the nine-officer Lordsburg Police Department or how much money is involved in the alleged theft.
But the presence of federal agents in town to conduct physical surveillance of Arthur De La Garza and his younger brother Elijah on several days in late January and February didn’t go unnoticed.
One member of the FBI surveillance team was pulled over on a “traffic stop” by Elijah De La Garza on Jan. 24.
About two weeks later, on Feb. 5, the lead FBI investigator observing Arthur De La Garza during another surveillance effort ended up speaking with him, according to one affidavit.
The next day, the FBI affidavit said, someone began to ask about public corruption using Elijah’s police cellphone.
The internet search questions raised concerns for the FBI.
“Based on these circumstances,” Agent Macmanus wrote in one affidavit, “I believe Elijah DLG … is concerned about the full scope of his criminal conduct being discovered, and would attempt to alter, delete, or destroy (or request others to alter, delete or destroy) time sheets, daily activity reports and/or incriminating evidence if he had advance notice the FBI is seeking such evidence.”