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FBI takes aim at rural corruption


MARSHALL: Any corruption unacceptable

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Albuquerque division of the FBI is launching a new initiative aimed at rooting out corruption in rural towns.

Officials are tackling what they say is a perception that a certain amount of corruption is acceptable, especially in small towns, so they’re asking rural-community residents to think critically about how money is being spent and contracts awarded by their public officials.

“There’s not a low-grade corruption level that we’re willing to accept for the people of the state of New Mexico,” said the FBI’s chief division counsel, Stephan Marshall, in an interview Wednesday.

Marshall said the state’s larger metropolitan areas are better protected against public corruption because bureau offices are often located in them, and because news media outlets in cities are generally more aggressive. Smaller towns are vulnerable to devastating losses and reduction in services, Marshall said, even if the amount of money misspent pales in comparison to corruption in places like Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

FBI officials declined to give information about ongoing investigations into public corruption in smaller towns, and they said they will tread very carefully each time someone is accused of crimes to avoid “dragging people through the mud,” Marshall said. He said allegations of corruption in small towns can often be politically motivated and baseless.

To help small-town residents identify possible corruption in their towns, the FBI has created a page on its website that lists possible ways officials could be abusing their power, including whether contracts awarded benefit a public official, whether officials’ relatives are getting contracts and if contracts are being awarded without a bidding process.

The FBI also has a telephone number that residents can call to report suspected corruption.

Sonya Chavez, assistant special agent in charge of the Albuquerque FBI, said that often people in small towns are hesitant to come forward with information, but that the department takes pride in its ability to protect witnesses.

Also, Carol Lee, the FBI’s special agent in charge, said that public corruption, even involving relatively small sums of money in small towns, can paralyze law enforcement, reduce services and lock up community budgets, and preventing that type of abuse of power is important for the whole state.

“This is what’s impacting these communities and therefore the entire state,” Lee said.