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Former Santa Fe Indian Market official indicted for alleged embezzlement from charity fund

SANTA FE – The former head of the organization that puts on the annual Santa Fe Indian Market has been indicted for embezzling money from a charity fund to aid victims of the catastrophic tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

John Torres Nez

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In a Santa Fe County grand jury indictment handed down this week, John Torres-Nez, 50, is charged with two counts of embezzlement for allegedly taking money from the fund while he was the director of artist services for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). He denies the charges.

One count says that between April 2011 and January 2012 Torres-Nez embezzled more than $20,000 from the tsunami relief fundraiser and the other count says he embezzled a check worth $4,153 from Native American Artists for Japan (NAAJ) on Sept. 15, 2011. Money for the charity fund was raised from sales of items donated by Indian artists.

Torres-Nez, now curator of visitor engagement and exhibits at the San Bernardino County Museum in California, said Friday, “I’m completely blindsided by all of this. I’m 600 miles away and I’m trying to understand what’s happening. I’m waiting for my attorney to provide some kind of guidance.”

He said the allegations are unfounded. “I have a lot of artists supporting me (who) don’t believe this,” he said. “It’s completely untrue. I have a lot I’d like to say, but I’d rather keep my mouth shut for now.”

Torres-Nez was promoted to chief operations officer of SWAIA in October 2012 and headed Indian Market for one year before stepping down in March 2014. He went on to help found the alternative Indigenous Fine Art Market (IFAM), which debuted the same weekend as Indian Market in August 2014.

State Police started investigating the tsunami relief fund in October 2014 after some donor artists raised concerns about where the money went. A search warrant affidavit filed in court then said there was no sign that money from the art sales was transferred from a SWAIA PayPal account to the intended Red Cross disaster relief fund.

The affidavit said SWAIA’s financial administrator determined that checks from the fundraiser were deposited into a 1st Community Bank account “which was also used by John (Torres-Nez) to receive his paycheck from SWAIA while employed there.”

IFAM board secretary Abby Lewis told the Journal in 2014 that Torres-Nez had copies of checks from his Native Cultural Resources to “Red Cross-Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Relief Fund” totaling $33,547. She said the checks said on the memo line, “NAAJ via SWAIA.”

SWAIA released this statement Friday: “It’s unfortunate that IFAM founder John Torres Nez was indicted by the grand jury … The investigation was launched at the request of several inquiries by donating artists, financial donors and supportive purchasers. SWAIA had limited information to provide and the State Police, when informed of the circumstances, decided to open an official investigation… For the sake of the artists who trust John Torres Nez, SWAIA hopes that this finds resolution quickly.”