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Feds: $400K to fight DWI misspent on VIP escorts, more

Isleta police, in this December 2012 photo, staff a DWI checkpoint on N.M. 314 south of Isleta Pueblo. A federal review of DWI grant spending in New Mexico criticized the agency for making too few DWI arrests over a three-year period. (Marla Brose/ Albuquerque Journal)

Isleta police, in this December 2012 photo, staff a DWI checkpoint on N.M. 314 south of Isleta Pueblo. A federal review of DWI grant spending in New Mexico criticized the agency for making too few DWI arrests over a three-year period. (Marla Brose/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Escorting VIPs. Providing security at basketball games. SWAT training in Provo, Utah.

Several New Mexico law enforcement agencies improperly used DWI grant money to pay for those activities and more, according to a federal management review obtained by the Journal.

The review found that more than $420,000 in federal DWI grant money awarded to New Mexico over a three-year period either wasn’t used to nab drunken drivers or was spent on ineffective drunken driving enforcement.

Two New Mexico law enforcement agencies, for example, had officers patrolling the streets during the daytime or weekdays – not the peak hours when alcohol-related crashes typically occur.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faulted a total of five New Mexico law enforcement agencies for how they spent DWI money and put the state Department of Transportation on a corrective plan to improve its oversight of future grant spending.

Michael Sandoval, director of DOT transportation programs, defended the DOT and the agencies involved. In an interview last week, he emphasized that New Mexico won’t lose any federal DWI funding as a result of the improper expenditures.

“I want people to know this is the exception, not the rule, as to the way things are working,” Sandoval said.

He said the $420,000 was a fraction of the $33 million New Mexico received from the federal government to fight DWI over the three-year period from October 2010 to September 2013.

And, he said, most of the unallowable expenses cited by the review related to legitimate law enforcement purposes, even if drunken drivers weren’t targeted.

“Oversight can always improve, regardless,” Sandoval said. “I would say there’s a few things that got past us (the DOT) in the invoicing process, but, in general these officers were doing what they were supposed to do.”

The review uncovered improper grant spending by the Isleta Police Department, the Farmington Police Department, sheriff’s departments in McKinley and Rio Arriba counties, and the New Mexico State Police.

McKinley and Rio Arriba have been among the top 10 New Mexico counties for alcohol-involved fatal crashes, according to DOT data.

Sandoval said the DOT is asking only the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Department for reimbursement – some $200,000 – because sheriff’s records to support the spending requests couldn’t be found.

State police already submitted a $600 check for its share.

The three other agencies won’t be asked to repay any money, Sandoval said.

Other federal or state funds are expected to be tapped to make up the difference, he added.

Few arrests

The federal management review criticized the DOT’s Traffic Safety Division for failing to adequately question how the federal money was being spent, such as asking why some agencies billed for numerous hours of DWI enforcement while making few arrests.

The grant money was supposed to fund sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols of officers looking for impaired drivers.

“Some agencies worked up to 50, 70 and even 100 hours of saturation patrols to detect and make only one DWI arrest,” stated the review.

There was no indication in Traffic Safety files that staff “questioned the low levels of DWI arrests or took any other actions to ensure funds dedicated for DWI enforcement were being used appropriately,” the review stated.

The low level of DWI productivity for areas of the state that have been identified as having a DWI problem “should have raised questions from the TSD, including what is limiting the agencies’ performance,” the review said.

Sandoval defended the state’s DWI enforcement efforts.

“I think law enforcement is saying it’s not easy to find and make DWI arrests. I think you can look at that in a positive way. The statistics are showing a downward trend. I think it’s showing progress,” he said.

DWI fatalities in 2014 were up somewhat from 2013, Sandoval said. But drunken driving is “less of a problem than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he added.

Sandoval said federal highway safety officials want the state to push local law enforcement to focus more on DWI arrests.

He said the DOT “will make whatever improvements we can.”

“But we cannot require law enforcement agencies to do quotas. I think we have a difference of opinion with our federal oversight agency. We’ve always had a great relationship with them. At this point, we’ve just agreed to disagree. We want to move forward.”

Agencies cited

According to the federal review:

  • Isleta Police Department made only three DWI arrests in fiscal year 2011, despite spending more than $15,000 in grant funds. In the following two years, Isleta police made only one DWI arrest for each year.

More than 68 percent of alcohol-involved crashes in New Mexico occurred Thursday through Sunday, with nearly 24 percent on Saturdays alone, according to data the DOT submitted to qualify for the grants.

More than 49 percent of alcohol-involved crashes occurred between 7 p.m. and midnight.

But at the Isleta Police Department, “A significant number of enforcement hours were worked on Monday through Wednesday during the hours of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., outside of the normal high impaired-driving days and hours identified by State data,” the federal review said.

Reviewers found that Isleta police were allowed to select the time of day and day of the week they wanted to work overtime shifts.

“A large number of the officers chose to work morning hours during Monday through Friday. This was the standard practice for all three fiscal years,” the report said.

There was no emphasis on DWI productivity or any consideration given to the time of day and day of week impaired-driving crashes were occurring, the review found.

  • The Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Department had more than $205,000 of unallowable costs. The review noted that $4,890 in grant money was paid to a sheriff’s deputy in fiscal year 2012 for annual leave after resigning from the department. The deputy worked under the grant for only six months, yet was paid for leave that accrued before that time.

The sheriff’s department made only one DWI arrest in FY 2012 and there wasn’t sufficient documentation to verify that the DWI grant money received by the office over the three-year period was spent for drunken driving enforcement.

Sandoval said the DOT’s Traffic Safety Division did review the supporting records in the past.

But when the state and federal reviewers “went in there to look further, they (the sheriff’s office) just didn’t have it (the backup documents),” Sandoval said. “They opened the files and there was absolutely nothing in the files.”

Most of the DWI grant money in question was spent during the tenure of Sheriff Tommy Rodella, who served from 2011 to 2014 – when he was convicted of federal firearms and civil rights charges, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

  • In McKinley County, reviewers found overtime approval documents showing that DWI grant money paid for SWAT training in Provo, Utah, K-9 calls and security.

While the sheriff’s department improved its record-keeping over the review period, officers were still paid from DWI grant funds to work security and special events, SWAT duty and routine patrol, the review stated.

Overtime was charged to the DWI grant for commercial motor vehicle inspections, crash investigations, sheriff’s security at basketball games and patrols of special events, the review added.

No records were available to document that those activities by McKinley County related to alcohol-impaired driving, the review stated.

In addition, sheriff’s officers working under the grant were scheduled to work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

  • The Farmington Police Department’s unallowable activities included assisting routine patrols, escort training for officers, VIP escorts, assisting at fire scenes, investigating aggravated robbery and out-of-state training.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe, who was hired in March 2014, told the Journal on Friday that he was disappointed to learn of the misspent DWI funds.

“We’re committed to a responsible use of these grants to help us combat the DUI problem in San Juan County,” he said.

  • New Mexico State Police tapped grant funds to handle routine patrol calls, such as bar fights, shootings, serving restraining orders and responding to a call of a dog being strangled by a chain.

State Police and the state Department of Public Safety have subsequently imposed internal controls to filter out improper charges, the review said.

Journal calls to the two sheriff’s departments, State Police and Isleta Police Departments seeking comment on the findings weren’t returned last week.

The last time the NHTSA found a significant amount of improper spending of New Mexico’s DWI grants was in 2003, when about $400,000 was discovered.

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