Mike Gallagher: Looking back at 40 years on the beat - Albuquerque Journal

Mike Gallagher: Looking back at 40 years on the beat

Editor’s Note: Journal Investigative Reporter Mike Gallagher, a Brooklyn native and New Mexico transplant who graduated from the University of New Mexico and went on to have a reporting career that spanned four decades, reflects back on some of the stories, the people and the process as he prepares to retire Dec. 31.

A reporter can fill up a lot of notebooks in more than 40 years of working in New Mexico. The earliest ones I can find are from the mid-1970s and have details of separate fatal car accidents on I-40 and South Broadway, where I jotted down notes at the scenes under streetlights. That was before crime scene tape was ubiquitous and when reporters could still get close to the carnage.

While most of my notes over the years went into Journal storage and then to the recycle can, I saved the stories; they fill plastic storage bins in a closet at home and I’ve been sifting through them recently as I prepare to retire.

As I leave, I’ve been asked to pass along a few memories and observations. But I also want to thank more people than I can – or should – name. Many of them never wanted their names in the newspaper and still don’t. Some held high positions in government and industry. Some wore badges, while others spent their lives in and out of jail and prison. Some pushed pencils.

You know who you are, so I will keep my pledge to each of you to keep your name out of print and your identity as my source protected.

* * *

From the time I started work as a student intern in September 1975, the Journal, from my perspective, had the right values.

In an era of corporations scooping up print and broadcast news outlets, I’ve felt privileged to work at a family-owned newspaper and thank the late Tom Lang and his brother, Bill Lang, for the opportunity.

Thanks to a lot of good work by Journal reporters, I believe we have made a difference. State and local governments are far more transparent than they were in 1975.

My editors over the years – Bob Brown, Jerry Crawford, Kent Walz and Karen Moses – insisted on accuracy and fairness. They wanted stories that took readers deep into the issues the state and local community faced.

In my experience, there were no “sacred cows.” If the facts supported a story, the story ran in the newspaper. It didn’t matter if it upset the mayor, the governor or anyone else.

The government watchdog role is real.

The Journal’s reporting in the 1970s helped lead to the creation of the Metropolitan Court and the Juvenile Court system in the Second Judicial District. More recently, the Journal’s reporting resulted in the overhaul that is still going on right now in how judges are expected to oversee guardianship cases, and families have more rights and protections.

The list goes on. Journal stories were cited by the federal judge in changes ordered in the state hospital in Los Lunas. Journal reporting on conditions in local jails and the state prison system led to court-ordered changes. The way the state invests its billions of dollars in its permanent funds was overhauled in part because of the Journal’s investigation of the State Investment Council.

Journal reporting took readers deep into the Metropolitan Courthouse construction scandal that resulted in criminal charges and prison time for some key players. Former Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz pleaded guilty and got probation. Court Administrator Toby Martinez pleaded guilty and went to jail. Former Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, one of the most powerful men in New Mexico, went to federal prison.

It would take a book, or maybe three, to recount the political corruption Journal reporters have dug up and covered over the past 45 years.

* * *

But, back to my story. I left the Journal in the summer of 1980 to freelance and then went to work at KGGM-TV. I didn’t really like working in television news and was leaving in the spring of 1984 when Tom Lang asked me to work on a libel lawsuit with attorneys Bill Dixon and Nick Akerman for what turned into a two-year graduate course in defamation and First Amendment law.

In the spring of 1986, the lawsuit was being dismissed and I transferred to the newsroom as an investigative reporter. Over time, I’ve had the privilege of working with fellow investigative reporters Dick Lyneis, Art Geiselman, Thom Cole and Colleen Heild. They were all great reporters and I learned a lot from each of them.

I was given great assignments – digging into the state Investment Council scandal, reporting on the Russian financial crisis from Moscow, investigating President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Angel Fire resort owner Dan Lassiter, tracking the rise of the Mexican drug cartels, and covering the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Any one of those stories could have crowned a reporter’s career.

* * *

First day

On my first day as an intern in 1975, the Journal was in the middle of reporting on the problems with the wrongful conviction of four members of the Vagos Motorcycle gang for the murder of William Velten.

Meanwhile, City Editor Fritz Thompson was editing the first draft of a lengthy Sunday story on problems with nuclear waste disposal at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

My appearance at the Journal surprised Fritz, and he didn’t know what to do with me, so he handed me off to the late Bern Gantner, the State Editor, who had me take dictation from “stringers” in Roswell, Farmington, Las Cruces and Hobbs. I got to use an electric typewriter for the first time and thought I was in heaven – even though I don’t recall anything about the stories I took over the phone.

In the world before fax machines, cellphones, computers, the internet and, of course, texting and e-mail, this was how reporters in far-flung parts of the state got their news to the Journal.

I had wanted to be a newspaper reporter since I was 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the stoop outside our house on summer nights in Brooklyn listening to the neighbors, who were press operators and worked in the back shops of the New York newspapers – the Times, the Herald, Journal American, Daily News, Daily Mirror and the Post. They talked about the news and what stories were coming in the next day’s papers. They also argued about who the best reporters and writers were. I drank it all up while they drank beer with my father.

In high school, our teachers introduced us to some of the big names in New York journalism circles, including Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese. Responding to one of my questions about reporting, Hamill gave me a piece of advice I always tried to follow: “Always talk to the people who do the work.”

In the spring of 1976, I became the Journal’s paid summer intern covering the police beat and filling in for reporters who were on vacation, and then a part-time staffer covering weekend cops.

In late August of that year, the newspaper’s reporter covering District Court went on vacation and never came back. I was asked to fill in for him until was hired full time – the day I graduated from UNM – in December 1976. I was assigned to the police beat.

Early work

Stories such as the Vagos Motorcycle gang members being freed from death row and the Journal’s coverage of the nuclear waste issue are well known. But there were other stories, less well-remembered, in which the Journal’s news coverage made major changes in the way the state does business.

Two of those involve the state courts.

One of my earliest assignments as an intern was to help Janelle Stamper, who covered county government, audit DWI cases at the old Albuquerque City Court. The Journal had done this for years, finding loads of problems.

It was dull work. We basically created spreadsheets by hand, counted DWI tickets and then tracked each ticket through the court system, which was not computerized. We recorded the results of each case – guilty or not guilty pleas, noting whether the officer showed up in court, how many delays city judges granted and what sentences were handed down.

Each year, there were dozens of cases that simply disappeared. What happened to those cases remained a mystery, the Journal noted in its stories – until APD detectives served a search warrant and found tickets that had simply been put in a judge’s desk drawer.

Some of those tickets, especially those issued to friends and political supporters, had been “taken care of” the old-fashioned way and ended up in the desk drawer. It wasn’t just DWI. More than 60,000 parking ticket warrants, issued to scofflaws, had to be dismissed because the court had no way of canceling the warrants once they were paid.

The resulting scandal gave impetus to combine the city court with the magistrate court into the Metropolitan Court.

Another story lost in time involved the county’s juvenile detention center.

There was a disturbance in the girls’ wing of the lockup that we covered, but then-editor Jerry Crawford wanted us to dig deeper.

Technically still a part-time employee, I got the assignment. After several initial stories about the disturbance, we wrote a three-part series that revealed the juvenile detention center had been repeatedly condemned for fire and safety code violations. The wiring throughout the building was substandard and unsafe. Each cell door required a separate key. The plumbing was broken. Toilets backed up into the showers.

We found many other problems that led to a series of editorials. City Editor Thompson guided me every step of the way, from reporting through writing. Crawford and Managing Editor Frankie McCarty went over the stories with a fine-toothed comb.

In the end, a new D-Home was built, the Children’s Code was overhauled and the Legislature agreed to create a full-time juvenile judge. The Journal wasn’t alone in pushing for reform; the New Mexico Council on Crime and Delinquency played a big role, as did legislators and Alice King, but everyone involved credited the newspaper for moving the reforms forward.

I was hired full-time a month after the series ran.

Follow the money

It was a long road from looking at county gravel contracts with Janelle Stamper in Bernalillo County and Tomas Martinez in Valencia County to investigating corruption of the multi-billion-dollar state permanent fund.

But the newspaper’s role was the same: protecting the public interest.

The way reporters do that is learning how government works – knowing how bids work, how the bills are paid and what rules govern government expenditures.

My role in the gravel contract stories was as small as the bribes paid to get the contracts – paving a driveway or a few thousand dollars changing hands.

Janelle and Tomas also taught me the basics of government procurement and how some government officials tried to evade the rules to line their own pockets.

So, looking at gravel contracts led to looking at government bond transactions by county treasurers and then (with Thom Cole) bond transactions by then-state Treasurer Michael Montoya. That led (with Colleen Heild) to looking at how state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna’s office got donations for Serna’s Con Alma foundation from insurance companies he regulated.

We weren’t finished with that story when we started looking into how a financial firm called CDR got a contract with the state to handle money from GRIP (Governor’ Richardson’s Improvement Program) bond sales in a questionable procurement process that in some ways was less sophisticated than the county commissioners used on gravel bids 30 years earlier.

CDR had been a big contributor to one of Richardson’s political action committees at the time it sought the contract, and the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico said in a 2009 letter that the Governor’s Office had exerted pressure, resulting in the “corruption of the procurement process.”

No criminal charges were ever filed, but the scandal cost Richardson a chance to serve in President Obama’s Cabinet.

Investment Council

Editor Kent Walz called me into his office one day and asked me to look at a Wall Street Journal article about bribes being paid by financial firms to do business with the New York Pension Fund. He thought we should check to see if any of the people involved in the New York scandal were involved in New Mexico.

As it turned out, many of the players there also were doing business with the State Investment Council and Educational Retirement Board in New Mexico.

At the heart of the New Mexico scandal were Anthony and Marc Correra, the father and son from New York who, in essence, controlled which financial firms received investments from the SIC and ERB. Court records and other documents outline how they exercised this control through Gary Bland, their hand-picked State Investment Officer, and a company called Aldus Equity, which was a key adviser to the Investment Council.

Reporting revealed that Anthony Correra was a close adviser to Bill Richardson and used that relationship to gain the authority to have his son Marc receive or share in more than $22 million in “finder’s fees” for state investments.

For the next 10 years, despite other assignments, I found myself writing continuing updates on the scandal.

New Mexico taxpayers lost well over $100 million in ill-advised, politically motivated investments. Some of that money has been recovered through a series of lawsuits by the reconstituted state Investment Council. Marc Correra filed for bankruptcy and moved to Paris.

No criminal charges were filed – but that’s not our job. Our job is to report the facts.

Corruption is corruption, whether big or small. The county commissioners who accepted kickbacks for gravel contracts were not nearly as ambitious as some of our more recent cases, ranging from state investments to allegations of wrongdoing at Albuquerque Public Schools.

Most recently, I wrote most of the stories on House Majority leader Sheryl Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, being charged with stealing almost a million dollars from contracts meant to help APS students in the district’s vocational education programs. It is a sweeping fraud, money-laundering and racketeering case.

And it will be someone else’s job to report on how that case turns out.

Moscow

I was sent to Moscow in 1998 because publisher Tom Lang, a pilot himself, had been working on a deal to market Russian-made high-performance aerobatic airplanes in the United States.

His experience there convinced him we needed to write about the Russian fiscal crisis and its global impact.

It was a great assignment and, as with any great assignment, a reporter feels pressure to come back with the story. But, as photographer Richard Pipes and I traveled to Moscow, our ability to do that was very much in doubt. Russian officials were canceling appointments that had been set up weeks earlier. They were leaving Moscow for financial capitals around the world, trying to shore up the country’s economy.

I gave Richard the bad news when we landed: All but one of our interviews had been canceled. That interview, with the Deputy Secretary of MinAtom, the Russian atomic ministry, had been set up by then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Richard and I had worked together at the Journal from 1975 through 1980. And that relationship resumed when I returned to the newsroom in 1986. Despite the difference in our ages – Richard started his professional career the year after I was born – we were good friends, and we always came back with a story. It might not be the exact story we planned, but it was usually a good one.

So, we got to work and, through a fellow who knew Tom Lang, we started interviewing Russian businessmen.

The interviews were arranged based on “I know a guy who knows a guy who can set up an interview with a guy buying American chickens for the Russian market.”

We met American businessmen who whispered stories about negotiating deals with Russian businessmen who were being replaced by organized crime members with no necks and leather jackets. Our interpreter, Nastya Morovia, and our driver, Shamiel, introduced us to everyday folks in Russia at a local school, a market, a university, a hair salon, plus a doctor and a poet/publisher.

It was chaos. We interviewed people at 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., traffic was insane and not everyone was happy to meet an American. And the entire time, Richard and I were jet lagged, falling asleep in Shamiel’s car as he worked his way through traffic from one side of Moscow to the other.

But, every morning at breakfast, Richard would say, “I can’t believe we’re in Moscow.”

I couldn’t either.

The stories and photographs must have been good enough. The paper republished them in booklet form.

9/11

Pipes and I were sent to New York twice after the terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center towers.

We made the first trip a week after the attacks. Tom Lang flew us and some rescue workers in his jet – at a time when very few other planes were in the air.

Lang went directly to “the pile” and worked with the rescue crews recovering bodies. Pipes and I went to a hotel at Times Square to figure out what we were going to do.

Leslie Linthicum was the first Journal reporter to reach what was called Ground Zero in the chaotic days right after the attacks. We knew we were not going to match her incredible story – a portrait in words of the horror and death.

But things fell into place once we visited a FDNY station and, by accident, ran into some kids from the Juilliard School who were going to fire stations to sing to firefighters grieving their lost friends and coworkers. We focused on people coming to grips with what happened. It was a hard story to write, but it came together.

When we returned to New York in October, I followed Pete Hamill’s advice from years earlier and wrote about the people doing the work – the Port Authority workers, the electricians and communications workers trying to restore phone and electrical services to lower Manhattan, the bagpipe players who played at funerals around the city and the Red Cross workers.

As always, Pipes’ photographs made my stories 100% better.

Organized crime threat changed

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the organized crime threat came in the guise of the traditional Italian Mafia families. As those organizations lost their nationwide influence, the threat posed by Mexican drug cartels increased.

And while the traditional mafiosos sought to infiltrate the financial, liquor and gambling industries, they did so with political influence and money, not machine guns.

The Mexican cartels targeted the same types of businesses to launder their drug money. But the violence that accompanied the cartels and their partnerships with local street gangs was something we had never seen.

I started writing about such Mexican gang leaders as Pablo Acosta and the rise of his protégé, Amado Carillo Fuentes, before he became internationally known as the founder of the Juarez Cartel.

I also reported on cartel links to such local street gangs as Los Padillas, while many in law enforcement initially downplayed the threat posed by those partnerships.

Prison gangs have also been a disruptive force in our communities.

In 1986 and 1987, I wrote about how the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang had become a serious problem in the state prison system, and was attempting to exert influence on the streets of cities and towns around the state. SNM, as it is known, was brought up in numerous stories about the prison system over the decades.

Finally, in 2015, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office began racketeering investigations into the gang. Those investigations and prosecutions continued through this year, with the Journal’s Colleen Heild providing the bulk of the news coverage.

As someone who grew up in a city where the cost of organized crime was everywhere – from the price of concrete to how much Mom paid for chicken at the grocery store – I can’t think of a more important role for a newspaper to play than exposing the influence of organized crime.

Goodbye

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you, the readers, who have called me out on mistakes I made over the years, the editors and copy editors who tried to keep those mistakes from getting into the paper and the people who delivered the paper to your doorstep.

Newspapers are a communal activity; it takes a lot of people to get the story to you.

When I first started working at the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo, we used to type –30– to indicate the end of a story. It was an old newspaper tradition; I don’t know why it started but we haven’t done it at the Journal for ages. I think I’ll use it today.

–30–

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