LAS CRUCES – Sunland Park’s Daniel Salinas, who was elected mayor in 2012 but never sworn in because of a corruption scandal, has admitted to felony extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion against fellow mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez involving a lap-dance video.
Those are the particulars of a plea agreement accepted Wednesday by state District Judge Darren Kugler. Salinas originally had been charged with more than 30 counts.
“Guilty,” said Salinas, when Kugler asked for his pleas to the two charges.
“Is your plea voluntary?” Kugler asked Salinas after each one was entered separately.
“Yes,” Salinas said.
Kugler gave Salinas, 31, a three-year deferred sentence with supervised probation and 100 hours of community service. Salinas is also prohibited from having contact with Hernandez and cannot have a firearm in his possession. As long as he notifies his probation officer in advance, Salinas will be able to travel out of New Mexico, but only to work.
“I’m trying hard to get my life back together,” said Salinas, in a brief statement. “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I took the wrong choice.”
Kugler accepted Salinas’ apology.
“There are consequences and you will have to bear those consequences,” Kugler said.
Salinas and other Sunland Park officials were charged with extortion after orchestrating a video that showed a woman giving Hernandez a lap dance. They threatened to release the video to the public unless Hernandez withdrew his candidacy for mayor.
Hernandez declined to renounce his candidacy, but Salinas won election as Sunland Park’s mayor in March 2012. Salinas never served a day as mayor because of the corruption activity that came to light.
Hernandez did not attend Wednesday’s hearing and sentencing. However, prosecutors told Kugler that Hernandez had been told when and where the legal proceeding was scheduled, if he wanted to speak at Salinas’ sentencing.
There were numerous other public corruption charges, some which led to the removal of Sunland Park officials. Ultimately 33 counts were brought against Salinas.
The plea agreement approved Wednesday by Kugler includes the dismissal of the remaining 31 allegations and three cases that had been pending against Salinas. Salinas’ crimes arose from a role he allegedly played in three notorious incidents:
- Blackmailing his mayoral opponent with the lap-dance video.
- Arranging the hire of a police chief so that he would pressure his sister not to run in a City Council race.
- Fraud and illegal kickbacks for reportedly trying to bill the city of Sunland Park for expenses – including strippers – during a border conference in Mexico.
“We’re very pleased with this,” Joe Spencer, one of Salinas’ attorneys, said of the plea agreement. “… Mr. Salinas did not give birth to this idea (of extortion). Someone else in his camp did. He should have turned away, and he didn’t. He accepts responsibility for that.”
Salinas’ probation begins immediately. Salinas walked out of the Doña Ana County Judicial Complex without making any other public comments, in the middle of a line of family members.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea, who was not at Wednesday’s sentencing, said he hopes a dark chapter of Sunland Park’s history can now be closed. Perea and Sunland Park’s current elected leaders were not involved in the public corruption charges to which Salinas and other city officials have admitted.
However, Sunland Park’s city government, and its residents, have been haunted by those scandals for more than three years.
“What we need to understand in all of this is the biggest victim of all was the citizens of Sunland Park,” said Perea, after several moments of silence to ponder Salinas’ sentence. “We still suffer the consequences of all those actions. Now, our job is to look up from the past and keep moving forward.”
Admitting he was speechless after hearing Salinas’ verdict, Perea added the scandal has taken its toll on city government and Sunland Park residents.
“These past three years the case still presented a cloud over this city,” said Perea, who was appointed mayor after Salinas’ arrest. “The city earned a reputation of corruption, but has since been able to repair some of that. It’s been slow, it’s been difficult. We have had to learn from those experiences.”