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How the DWI unit probe nearly got derailed

In World
June 10, 2024

Jun. 9—Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina was in Las Vegas, Nevada, in November to watch Raiders football when he got word that one of his officers — a suspect in a highly confidential FBI corruption investigation — might have been tipped off about the inquiry.

Medina learned the city’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency had notified DWI officer Honorio Alba Jr. that a top state court official had alleged “questionable conduct” related to Alba’s DWI arrest of a court employee more than two months earlier — an employee Alba never filed charges against.

The civilian oversight agency had opened an investigation and sent Alba the complaint, which identified the employee. A CPOA investigator told Alba in an attached email, “At this time, you are considered a target of this investigation.”

The news sent Medina into damage control, and within hours, he alerted U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Alex Uballez about what occurred, according to emails obtained by the Journal.

Uballez, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, is overseeing the ongoing criminal investigation into allegations that DWI officers were accepting kickbacks from an Albuquerque defense attorney and paralegal in exchange for not filing the citations in court or for failing to appear in court on drunken driving cases. The scheme allegedly occurred for more than a decade.

APD’s Internal Affairs division handles complaints of potential criminal matters, but the CPOA decided to treat the Alba complaint as an administrative matter instead of referring it to IA.

The Nov. 3 complaint forwarded to Alba stated that the officer put then-court employee Antonio Barron in contact “with a specific attorney, possibly named ‘Rick,’ who if hired, would ensure that no court case would be filed in court by APD.”

Two business days after receiving the complaint from the CPOA, on the morning of Nov. 13, court records show Alba filed DWI charges against Barron, whom he had arrested Aug. 24, 2023, and released without booking into jail.

At the same time, Alba also filed DWI citations against three other men he had stopped for DWI in the prior weeks and months. He sent them all summonses to appear in court, but only Barron ultimately showed up. Warrants were filed for the others for non-appearance in court.

The tip-off raised questions about the actions and procedures of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, which handles investigations of citizen complaints. Its director told the Journal recently that her office was following the law and the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association collective bargaining agreement in sending Alba the complaint and keeping the case in-house initially.

Ultimately, Alba was informed that there was nothing to the complaint and the investigation was closed. Medina told the Journal last week that he “canceled” the investigation, which had been sent back to the IA after he intervened.

Whether the incident affected the ongoing criminal investigation isn’t clear. No arrests have been made nearly five months since federal search warrants were executed on Jan. 18 at Alba’s home and those two other DWI officers; and attorney Thomas Clear and his paralegal Rick Mendez.

Medina declined to comment when the Journal asked for his opinion about what occurred. APD hit a milestone recently, after an independent monitoring team found the agency in compliance with a multi-faceted consent degree aimed at stopping unlawful excessive force by police, and increasing accountability of its Internal Affairs and CPOA processes.

On Friday, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told the Journal, “Officers have rights under the (collective bargaining agreement) and Section 29-14-4 to have information about a complaint and complainant to be able to defend themselves. These only kick in when an investigation is opened.”

“CPOA should not start an investigation if there are criminal allegations. They are supposed to transfer the complaint to IA,” he continued. “CPOA in the past has transferred cases with criminal allegations to IA. I don’t know why this one did not go that route.”

CPOA director Dianne McDermott, in an email to the Journal, defended the actions of her agency. The complaint against Alba from the court administrator was “vague and cited questionable conduct absent much more,” she wrote.

“Given the lack of specificity in this complaint, and not being made aware by APD of a potential brewing issue or case, the CPOA did its diligence first as a normal course of business,” McDermott said. She said the complaint was forwarded to Alba “before a preliminary investigation had been able to determine its direction.”

McDermott did not respond to Journal questions as to when a citizen complaint should be sent to an officer or why the CPOA sent the complaint to Alba before it knew where the allegations were leading.

In her email response, she cited the city’s collective bargaining agreement’s directive with police, which states, simply, “the subject officer will also be given a copy of the official complaint, signed or unsigned.”

“We are bound by (the CBA’s) terms to send this information as required,” McDermott wrote. “If we do not the (police union) raises protest that process was not followed and any resulting proposed discipline should be voided.”

However, the union agreement also states, “as soon as an officer is determined to be the subject of an administrative investigation, he/she will be notified unless this disclosure would jeopardize the investigation.”

The city ordinance governing the citizen review process states, “at any point during an investigation the investigator determines that there may have been criminal conduct by any APD personnel, the investigator shall immediately notify the APD Internal Affairs Bureau commanding officer and transfer the administrative investigation to the Internal Affairs Bureau.”

The CPOA letter to Alba on Nov. 9 stated he was being investigated for allegedly violating APD’s personnel code of conduct and a mandate about filing reports after making arrests.

Asked whether any changes have occurred after the Alba case, McDermott responded, “There has been discussion with the (APD) Chief to increase communication with the CPOA Director regarding potential investigations so if complaints come in regarding the same topics they can be evaluated with that additional information in mind and handled.”

Shaun Willoughby, president of the police union, said he believed that, with what was known at the time, the complaint “100%” should have been sent to the officer.

“If the CPOA read this complaint and didn’t assume, or think that there was any criminal allegation in the complaint, then they acted correctly,” he said. “APD is looking at this through hindsight, knowing what they know now.”

Willoughby added, “I don’t think there’s any way, shape or form, that the CPOA would’ve had any indication that this was part of a really big fish.”

The tip-off

After the federal investigation into the DWI unit became public earlier this year, Medina ordered an internal affairs investigation into the allegations. That is continuing.

Alba, who resigned from the APD in February, couldn’t be reached for comment.

He and officers Daren DeAguero, Joshua Montaño, Nelson Ortiz, Harvey Johnson and Lt. Justin Hunt, who had no longer been assigned to the DWI unit at the time, resigned or retired just as they were to be interviewed as part of the IA investigation.

Meanwhile, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman, to avoid a conflict in prosecuting cases brought by those officers, dismissed nearly 200 DWI cases earlier this year.

The day before his resignation, Alba filed four other DWI cases from his past arrests. Those were also eventually dismissed, as was Barron’s.

Barron, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was arrested by Alba the early morning of Aug. 24 after his car was stopped near Interstate 25 and Avenida Cesar Chavez traveling 83 mph in a 55 mph zone. His sedan’s head and tail lamps were off, he failed to maintain a lane, and nearly struck a vehicle in front of him, according to the citation Alba wrote.

He showed signs of intoxication, and was taken by Alba to the Prisoner Transport Center, where he refused to take a breath test, which constituted an aggravated DWI. He was apparently released at that point, but it was unclear who picked him up. There was no explanation in court records as to why the citation wasn’t filed at that time, or why Barron wasn’t booked.

Barron resigned as a state district court employee in late September, but Katina Watson, chief executive officer for state district courts in Bernalillo County, sent the complaint to the CPOA on Nov. 3.

“On behalf of the Second Judicial District Court, I am reaching out to you regarding an APD DWI citation that was issued to Antonio Barron, a former employee…”

The letter stated that Barron notified court officials that he had been charged with driving under the influence around Aug. 24 or 25.

“We did not question or conduct any sort of internal investigation however, we have been alerted that there may be questionable conduct by the arresting/citation officer. More specifically, that the arresting/citation officer put Mr. Barron in contact with a specific attorney, possibly named ‘Rick,’ who if hired, would ensure that no court case would be filed in court by APD,” Watson’s letter stated.

“While we do not have first-hand knowledge of what communications and actions have taken place, we are reporting this out of concern,” Watson added. It wasn’t clear whether Barron ever contacted Clear or his paralegal.

‘Held to account’

The ongoing FBI criminal investigation came up last Tuesday during five hours of testimony about APD’s and CPOA’s compliance with a court-approved-settlement agreement. The 10-year-old agreement is aimed at eliminating unlawful police shootings, excessive force and also requires increased accountability of APD’s Internal Affairs Division and the handling of complaints against officers.

Independent monitors at the hearing reported that APD achieved compliance, and is self-monitoring for the next two years. But they reported that the CPOA failed to meet requirements to finish its investigations in a timely manner, a problem attributed in part to a staff shortage. The monitoring team’s report covered the period from last August to Jan. 31 of this year.

During the hearing, U.S. District Judge James Browning brought up the criminal investigation of the DWI unit and asked, “If what I read in the paper might be occurring, would that violate any of the terms of (the agreement)? If the police department was unable to discover such a large problem, would that cause any concern (related to the consent decree compliance)?”

Paul Killebrew, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, responded that he wasn’t privy to the investigation by the DOJ’s criminal division. He said it would be premature to draw any conclusions.

“But the APD can’t solve its force problem if it doesn’t solve its accountability function,” Killebrew said. “I don’t know what’s going on or how far-reaching things are, but with any large organization, you have to expect there will be some people who violate the law. We don’t know if it’s a systems breakdown or individual violations.”

Browning pressed: “Is that an area that could be a problem with continued compliance over the next two years?”

“Oh, yes,” Killebrew said. If a widespread problem is uncovered by the FBI criminal investigation that implicates the accountability of the APD, “that would raise some serious questions about the efficacy of reform.”

U.S. Attorney Uballez told the judge there was much he and Medina cannot divulge about the FBI inquiry, but Uballez added that the investigation has proceeded in “full” partnership with APD.

“People will be held to account,” he added.

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