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AG drops remaining charges in housing authority case

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

What was to have been a signature case of public corruption by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office ended with a whimper this week when prosecutors dropped charges against the three remaining defendants.

“Nolle prosequi” pleadings were filed late Monday in the criminal cases against two attorneys – David Hernandez and Robert Strumor – and an accountant, Dennis Kennedy, who were associated with the now-defunct Region III Housing Authority. The case had been headed to a trial expected to last three weeks or longer before District Judge Ross Sanchez of Albuquerque next month.

Late last year, Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos, a former legislator who headed the housing authority, pleaded no contest to four misdemeanors, including attempt to commit a felony/paying or receiving public money for services not rendered. He was given a one-year probationary sentence with conditional discharge in the plea agreement.

Gallegos had been charged with multiple felonies involving fraud, embezzlement and conspiracy in connection with bond funds for housing projects.

Hernandez, the onetime Region III Housing Authority attorney, did nothing but represent his client and had done nothing wrong, said his attorney, Bob Cooper.

Bond attorney Strumor maintained his innocence from Day One, said his attorney, Billy Blackburn.

“Finally, after six years, these cases have come to an end, and he’s happy he can put this behind him and continue practicing law without this hanging over his head,” said Blackburn, who has amassed nine bankers boxes of materials since the case was indicted in 2009.

Attorney Sam Bregman offered praise for the dismissals, including charges against his client, Kennedy.

“I applaud the Attorney General’s Office for dismissing a case that should never have been brought in the first place,” Bregman said. “The government said we have no evidence of wrongdoing by my client and saw the light – a month before trial.”

Kennedy and Strumor had faced fraud and other charges. Hernandez had been charged with tampering with evidence.

Deputy Attorney General David Pederson said the office reviewed the cases since the Gallegos plea “and thought our ethical obligation was to dismiss them.”

“I don’t think you can say there was nothing to it” to start off with, he said. “We’re talking about events that took place in 2003. Criminal cases just don’t age well. When you get cases that are this stale, memories fade. Witnesses pass away.”

Prosecutors have the burden of proving allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, and so the ethical obligations are high, he said.

“Sometimes you just don’t get cases to trial,” he said.

Pederson said the dismissal of charges against Strumor, Kennedy and Hernandez came after “fresh eyes took a look at the evidentiary underpinnings of the case. It was one of those things that when you’re getting ready to go to trial, you see what you have available. It involved a reassessment of the ability to successfully bring cases to trial.”

Public corruption cases, he said, are just not that easy.