The Las Cruces Sun-News says there’s at least a perceived conflict of interest in the way investigations into officer-involved shootings are handled in Doña Ana County because District Attorney Susana Martinez is married to Undersheriff Chuck Franco.
When an officer is involved in a shooting, a multi-agency task force that includes the sheriff’s department investigates. It forwards its findings to the district attorney’s office. After prosecutors there review the case, Martinez decides whether the shooting was justified.
The Sun-News shared its concerns earlier this year after Martinez announced that officers acted appropriately in fatally shooting Las Crucen Antonio Medrano as he charged at them with a butcher knife and baseball bat.
“The practice of police investigating fellow officers will always create some level of skepticism. In this case, that skepticism is heightened by the fact that Martinez, the final arbiter, is married to the undersheriff,” the Sun-News wrote in a March 30 editorial arguing that the city needs a citizens review board or police auditor to review complaints.
“That does not mean that the investigation was flawed or that the findings were improper,” the editorial stated. “We are not impugning the integrity of task force members or DA Martinez. But we do believe the findings would have been better received if not for those conflicts of interest.”
The Sun-News isn’t alone in expressing concerns about the way officer-involved shootings are handled. Some have criticized the fact that Martinez makes the final decision on officer-involved shootings even if they involve sheriff’s deputies who work for Franco.
So now that Martinez, the Republican candidate for governor, is asking voters to give her a chance to clean up Santa Fe, NMPolitics.net asked whether she believes there’s a conflict. It’s a question Martinez, through her campaign manager, refused to answer.
NMPolitics.net asked a number of questions related to how Martinez and Franco have dealt with times when their relationship created a potential conflict between their jobs. Martinez Campaign Manager Ryan Cangiolosi answered many questions, including what Martinez would do if Franco was involved in a shooting.
“She would obviously recuse herself,” Cangiolosi said.
Here are the questions Cangiolosi refused to answer:
- In general, how has Martinez sought to avoid any conflict in her role as a prosecutor while Franco has been a police officer, and in particular the undersheriff? Have there ever been situations in which one or both saw a potential conflict and took steps to avoid it? Can you provide details?
- Some in Las Cruces have complained that Martinez makes the ultimate decision on investigations into officer-involved shootings involving employees who work at the sheriff’s department under Franco. Does Martinez view this as a conflict? Why or why not?
- In the justice system, should there be some level of separation between police officers and prosecutors? Why or why not? To what degree should the separation exist?
As a judge, Franco recused himself from DA cases
A potential conflict of interest between Martinez and Franco was an issue in the late 1990s, when she first became district attorney. Franco was a magistrate judge, and some cases being prosecuted by the district attorney’s office were assigned to him.
Franco was running for re-election in 1996, the same year Martinez first ran for DA. His Democratic opponent and others said there would be a conflict if both were elected. But Franco and Martinez said Franco would recuse himself from all cases involving the DA’s office.
Cangiolosi said that’s exactly what happened.
Records NMPolitics.net examined back up that claim. NMPolitics.net picked a handful of cases at random that were initially assigned to Franco as part of the court’s rotating judge assignment process. In each case, documents exist to show that Franco recused himself.
Martinez: Relationship works because both are in law enforcement
Franco also worked as an investigator for the Las Cruces Police, Doña Ana County Sheriff and the New Mexico State University Police departments before becoming the county’s undersheriff in 2005. Martinez’s office has prosecuted many cases Franco investigated.
Franco and Martinez have both said that didn’t create a conflict. In fact, in a Spring 2009 article in Las Cruces Magazine, Martinez said her relationship with Franco works because they’re both in law enforcement.
“He can give my perspective to his officers and I can give his perspective to my attorneys,” the magazine quoted Martinez as saying.
When Sheriff Todd Garrison picked Franco to be his undersheriff in 2005, some complained about a conflict. Garrison said none existed.
“Time will show. Give us a chance,” Garrison was quoted by the Sun-News as saying in a Feb. 25, 2005 article. In that same article, the Democratic candidates for sheriff and undersheriff, who ran unsuccessfully against Garrison and Franco in 2006, didn’t call Franco’s relationship with Martinez a conflict.
“That’s up to the public to decide,” sheriff candidate Ralph Misquez was quoted as saying.
“I think they both take measures to avoid even an appearance of conflict, much less a conflict,” Misquez’s running mate, Joel Cano, was quoted as saying. Cano was Franco’s supervisor at LCPD.
In response to NMPolitics.net’s questions, Cangiolosi said there have been instances since Franco became undersheriff “when deputies and other employees of the sheriff’s department have been charged with crimes, and Martinez treats those cases the same as any other.”
“For example, she has prosecuted a deputy for assault, an employee in the sheriff’s office for DWI twice, and the son of a deputy for a sex offense,” Cangiolosi said.
Concerns raised about secrecy of shooting probes
Martinez’s relationship with Franco has twice been raised as a concern when she had to decide whether officer-involved shootings were justified.
In 1999, the sheriff’s department refused to release supplemental police reports related to an investigation into the fatal shooting of an Anthony man by deputies, even though the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) said the department couldn’t legally keep them secret.
The sheriff’s department withheld the reports at the advice of Martinez, according to a Sept. 17, 1999 Associated Press article. Martinez was quoted by the news service as saying the reports could be withheld because they involved an ongoing investigation.
Franco was working at the sheriff’s department at the time. Martinez’s response prompted a conflict-of-interest allegation from then-FOG Director Bob Johnson, who said nothing in state law allowed the withholding of the reports.
Martinez rejected the conflict allegation.
“If the decision to shoot was improper, I would say so regardless of where my husband works,” the AP quoted Martinez as saying.
Earlier this year, LCPD refused to release the task force’s report on the shooting of Medrano – a shooting Martinez decided was justified. Martinez defended keeping the report secret, saying releasing it would violate state law.
The city’s withholding of the report, and Martinez’s defense of that action, led to criticism from me and others, including the Sun-News. In an editorial that ran April 8, the Sun-News stated that there is, “at the very least, a perception of conflict of interest, both with the task force and the district attorney, who is married to the undersheriff.”
“Given that perception, we do not believe the public interest is best served by keeping this report from the public,” the editorial stated. “…The public needs to be assured that the investigation – conducted by fellow officers, including two from the Las Cruces Police Department – was thorough and unbiased. Failure to release the report will only lead to more speculation as to what they are ‘trying to hide.’”
The report has still not been released.