The state district judge who had closed a public corruption case against the Torrance County manager and a contractor reversed course Tuesday after attorneys for the Albuquerque Journal and other news media challenged his order that had barred the public and press from the courtroom.
And although no details were offered, it became clear during the hearing that the reason for the sealing order – which also kept all the records in the case hidden from public view – was that prosecutors allege an illicit romantic relationship between the two defendants.
“I do feel this is in furtherance of the precepts of this country,” including the Bill of Rights , 2nd District Judge Kenneth Martinez said in opening up the case after hearing argument from Albuquerque Journal and Mountain View Telegraph attorney Greg Williams and KRQE News 13 attorney Marty Esquivel.
Martinez took on the criminal case against Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley and CCS Construction Co. general contractor Christopher M. Valdez after 7th Judicial District judges were recused. Ansley and Valdez are charged with 10 felony counts each of conspiracy, fraud over $20,000 and making or permitting a false public voucher.
Martinez agreed to hear from media lawyers after Williams, Charles Peifer and Esquivel filed an emergency motion Monday when a Journal reporter – and any other member of the public – was barred from the courtroom.
The case is one involving what the attorneys called a matter of significant public importance.
“We’re pleased with Judge Martinez’s decision,” said Williams. “It’s always the right decision when the public is given access to public proceedings.”
Williams and Esquivel complained that they were at a “tremendous disadvantage” because no one could even tell them what the basis for the sealing was because it also was sealed.
Valdez attorney Matthew Bradburn, saying he was “arguing against the tide,” recalled “considerable heated argument” between defense lawyers and the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office when the defense proposed sealing it. The Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case.
Lead prosecutor Chris Lackmann said his office opposed sealing.
“The prosecution claimed they had the ability to show an inappropriate sexual relationship (between the defendants) in 2007 and 2008. This is a case where we categorically deny any inappropriate relationship between the two,” Bradburn said.
He called the media timing suspect because he said the media had known since at least Nov. 7 that the hearing would be sealed – a claim disputed by reporters.
Ansley’s attorney Michael Alarid said he believes the jury pool will be tainted by reporting on the preliminary hearing.
“That front page article (in the Journal ) shows the attorney general is not going to object because they wanted to try it in the media,” Alarid said. “We think you did the right thing” by sealing the case.
Martinez, however, said that, upon reconsideration, he believes his order both unsealing the court file and opening up court proceedings will not prejudice the case as it wends its way through the criminal justice system.
The electronic file still had not been unsealed late Tuesday, however.
Williams said the Torrance County clerk told him she needs a signed, written order before she can take any action to open the file, and the judge and attorneys were in court Tuesday on the second day of the hearing.
Williams argued to the court that Ansley’s public position and the amount of the alleged fraud – over $470,000 – make the matter one of significant public concern.
Preliminary hearings by their nature are a more open process than grand jury proceedings, he said. “The statutory presumption is that it should be open,” he said.
Both proceedings are designed to decide if the prosecution has sufficient evidence to take a case to trial.
Esquivel said the case law in New Mexico and other jurisdictions is straightforward on criminal proceedings of this nature being open.
“I would add that we’re at a tremendous disadvantage by not having access to the documents,” he said. “I have not seen a situation like this before.”