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Attorney Tips FBI on APD DWI Corruption Case

The fbi logo with a city and mountains in the background.

He won’t say exactly when, but at some point a “young person” came to attorney Daymon Ely with a story about possible corruption involving the Albuquerque Police Department’s DWI officers and a local attorney. 

That same day, Ely says, he went to the FBI.  

“I would not have contacted APD, because at that point they’re the ones that the allegations are being made about,” he adds. “So I would have contacted federal authorities — which I did.” 

The alleged scheme appears to involve a handful of police officers and at least one well-known local criminal defense attorney and his paralegal working together to make DWI cases go away.  

Ely’s office would have been a natural choice for someone with this kind of story. 

As a legal malpractice attorney, the Democratic former state representative sues others in his profession for a living, but in this case he’s guarding most of the details of what he was told. That’s because, after consulting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico, he’s concerned that saying too much could compromise the ongoing federal criminal investigation. 

However, Ely is definitive that his peripheral involvement began a while ago. And at this point, he’s been contacted by more than one potential victim.  

“They did not read about it in the paper and come into my office,” Ely said. 

He said he doesn’t know if he was first to go to the FBI with these allegations.  

The investigation has reverberated around the criminal justice system. DWI cases have continued to move through the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court but attorneys who practice there report that everyone on every side is on edge. 

In a state with high rates of fatal DWIs — New Mexico ranks in the top 10 states for drunk driving — Ely, and other insiders of the legal field, stress the importance of credibility throughout the whole criminal justice system.  

“When I was a legislator we wanted to be able to look at the public and say, ‘we are working towards deterring crime by having a system with integrity where when people get caught, they know justice is coming and it’s coming quickly,’” he said. “And I think, to be frank with you, we’re still working on that. But sometimes out of these bad situations come surprisingly good things.”  

The integrity of the system 

On Jan. 18, FBI agents raided the homes of some DWI officers and the office of attorney Thomas Clear III, who is known for representing defendants accused of driving while intoxicated. That same day, the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office dismissed 144 cases involving officers Honorio Alba, Joshua Montaño, Harvey Johnson and Nelson Ortiz because District Attorney Sam Bregman — citing his responsibility under Giglio v. United States — said he will not put witnesses on the stand with integrity issues. Bregman has since tossed another 56 cases, bringing the total to 200. 

APD launched its own internal affairs investigations, putting the four officers — and Lt. Justin Hunt, who was in the DWI unit from 2011 to 2014 — on administrative leave. Hunt and Alba have since resigned and the internal investigation has expanded to include two members of the Internal Affairs Division — Cmdr. Mark Landavazo, who is now on leave, and a lieutenant who was transferred to another division. APD has not identified the Internal Affairs lieutenant because he has not been put on administrative leave. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story. 

No charges have been filed but reports have surfaced about interactions people have had with some of the officers and Clear’s paralegal, Ricardo “Rick” Mendez.  

In one case, a former court employee reported that after Alba detained him on suspicion of drunken driving he told him to contact an attorney named “Rick” who “if hired, would ensure that no court case would be filed in court by APD.” In another case, a man who is now being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico reported that Officer Montaño took his bracelet and had him go get it back from Clear’s office. That’s where, he said, Mendez told him, “If you need to get off of this, you’re at the right place” — if he paid $8,500. The man said he didn’t hire Clear. 

As for Ely, after he contacted the FBI, he said he served as a guide to make sure those who came to him felt comfortable talking to federal agents. He is not representing them and has not been paid for his part nor is he pursuing any kind of lawsuit regarding the allegations. 

“These are brave people that saw something wrong and didn’t know what to do about it and wanted to do what was right,” he said. “That’s impressive to me. When you’re talking about law enforcement and powerful people and they’re willing to stand up to it: That’s, in my judgment, something to be applauded.” 

Ely said the contours of the alleged scheme probably led potential victims to his door. 

“Obviously there was a lawyer involved in this…,” he said. “I wasn’t shocked when I got the call because I go after lawyers that have committed negligent or wrongful conduct. And in this case, that was part of the allegations that were being made.” 

He said he was “pissed off” by the allegations, which cast a shadow over a complex criminal justice system where everyone has a role to play.   

“It’s outrageous. You have a criminal justice system that depends on everybody in that system acting in a way that can be relied on…,” Ely said. “When there are a couple of people within that system that aren’t doing their job, it impacts the integrity of the entire system.” 

Two names in DWI defense 

For years when someone got charged with driving while intoxicated, if they could afford to hire a private attorney there were two names that would quickly surface: Thomas Clear III and Ousama Rasheed. 

Now Rasheed is getting calls from people who Clear — a man he once considered a friend as well as a competitor — represented asking if he can take their cases instead. He’s turning them down.  

“I will not directly profit off of Tom Clear’s problems, I will not take any of his cases, I will not take any of his clients…,” he said. “I don’t want to be associated with anything that deals with corruption and as upset as I am with Tom, I will not financially benefit from his problems.” 

Rasheed first went up against Clear as a law school student in a clinical program. After he graduated in 1990, their careers intersected many times as they both built names for themselves as criminal defense attorneys representing people charged with DWI.  

It’s a small world in which a limited number of police officers, a handful of prosecutors and a few defense attorneys encounter each other again and again in the courts system. 

“Most lawyers do DWI early in their career and then they consider them too small of cases to handle and they move on to felonies or federal work and all that kind of stuff,” Rasheed said. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was making a good living at it … So it was a good area of law for me. I liked not having these two- and three- and four-week trials and making a decent living knowing that I was never going to get rich.” 

He said over the years he’s won cases because an officer didn’t show up but “there ain’t a stack of cash waiting for anybody at my office, that’s for sure.” 

“Some of us are sitting there and meeting with people and putting in the time and putting in the work and the research and the writing and the fighting and the trial and all of that — and some of us are just having 80 and 90% success with no-shows,” Rasheed said. “Come on, man, it’s frustrating.” 

Tense mood in the courthouse 

It’s been more than a month since news of the federal investigation became public.  

And Rasheed said the mood in the courthouse has been tense. 

“Everybody hates it, the judges freaking hate it — they’re all leery about every single thing — the cops are all in a tizzy, like, every department is hyper-evaluating whether their officers appear in court or for interviews or for whatever,” he said. “Right now, everybody else in the system is walking on eggshells because of probably whatever the seven or eight people involved.” 

For him it comes down to a small number of people crossing the line that is drawn between the two sides of the justice system.  

“DWI is not a good thing in society — it’s dangerous, it can hurt people — and my job has been to defend people that are charged with that charge,” Rasheed said. “That being said, you’ve got to know that when people are on one side of the line that they stay on that side of the line. Once you raise your right hand and swear what you swear to and stick a badge on your chest you’ve picked a side — and you have to stay on that side.” 

This story was produced and published in collaboration with City Desk ABQ, a NMPBS partner   

-Elise Kaplan, assistant editor, City Desk ABQ