When I moved to New Mexico from Michigan in late 2021 and started working at NMPBS, I never expected I’d end up covering an FBI investigation into officers at the state’s largest police department — definitely not in my first three years. But that’s where we are.
Five Albuquerque police officers and a prominent criminal defense attorney have been implicated in a federal investigation that appears focused on whether those cops took payments from that attorney to get DWI cases dismissed.
It’s been a fast-moving story — one that we first learned about last Thursday when federal agents kicked in the doors of local attorney Thomas Clear, his paralegal and several APD officers. Now, a week later, the names of the officers involved in the alleged scheme have emerged through some incredible reporting from Bethany Raja and Elise Kaplan at City Desk ABQ.
Those four officers are now on administrative leave and a fifth, identified by Albuquerque Journal criminal justice reporter Matt Reisen, is on administrative assignment. None of them has been charged with a crime; nor has Clear or his paralegal.
To steal a phrase coined by Winston Churchill and apply it to Albuquerque’s admittedly less dire situation, I see this as the end of the beginning of this story. The initial shockwaves have passed and the people in power have begun positioning themselves to avoid the seemingly inevitable blowback.
On Tuesday, Mayor Tim Keller issued his first acknowledgment of the federal investigation into the alleged corruption of longtime APD officers who’ve served under his administration and those of his predecessors. Keller took the opportunity to end the statement with a pat on the back — his own back — taking credit for holding the officers accountable in the alleged scheme that appears to have stretched beyond his seven-year tenure.
Police Chief Harold Medina mimicked that posture during a media blitz Tuesday evening, telling KRQE’s Ann Pierret (who in the interest of disclosure also happens to be my wife), “Yes, in a way there is a stain on APD, but I think that there is the general public who’s going to realize that leadership is holding individuals accountable.”
The administration’s spin cycle has blown straight past the delicate setting and is now thrumming away on heavy duty.
Before long, this story is going to settle into a larger question: Beyond the alleged misconduct of these officers and lawyers, what institutional failures allowed this scandal to go unnoticed for what appears to be at least 10 years?
I tried to get some of those answers from Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman during my interview airing on the show this week. Bregman wouldn’t talk about the investigation itself but did expand on a few procedural realities that he says obligated him to throw out 156 DWI cases. Witness credibility is everything in a DWI case, Bregman, who spent decades as a criminal defense attorney before becoming a prosecutor, told me. And if this scandal is what it looks like, his assistant district attorneys wouldn’t have gotten far in the courtroom using corrupt police officers to prosecute drunk drivers.
We can thank Raja and Kaplan’s reporting once again for allowing us to connect Bregman’s dismissals to the officers in question.
In the early stages of a story like this, when public officials are offering little more than hypotheticals and explanations of process, the role of our journalists is even more vital. All we’ve learned over the past week, and the pace at which we’ve learned it, is a credit those great reporters in our state, and the city of Albuquerque.
We couldn’t do what we do at New Mexico in Focus if not for their diligent work. But at NMPBS, we also have the ability to do something no one else can — bring you full, in-depth discussions with our policymakers and power brokers.
With longtime criminal justice reporter Jeff Proctor leading our newsroom as executive producer, you can expect more interviews and analysis aimed at pulling back the curtain on the mechanisms that contributed to this scandal, so that you, our viewer, can understand who should be held accountable, and why.
That begins on the show this week with the Bregman interview, and continues next Friday when Jeff sits down with the aforementioned Kaplan and Reisen to talk about what they’ve learned through their reporting, how they discovered it and what more they’re working to find out.
Just like you, we can’t wait.
– Lou DiVizio, Senior Producer
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