First Judicial District Court Judge Jason Lidyard said during a Nov. 1 hearing that he will convene a special grand jury that will solely investigate allegations made against the North Central Solid Waste Authority in a citizens petition submitted to the courts in June.
La Madera resident Antonio DeVargas organized the petition to ask the courts to empanel a grand jury to investigate “allegations of malfeasance, misappropriation of public monies, billing and collecting money for services not rendered, fraud” and any other illegal acts by those associated with or employed by the Authority or Rio Arriba County.
“It is my determination that a sitting grand jury just simply would not have enough time to investigate what you’re asking them to look into,” Lidyard said.
During a hearing Sept. 4, Lidyard said he was considering either folding the investigation into the schedule of the grand jury that will be convened in December or empaneling one just to hear this case.
DeVargas said he is pleased with Lidyard’s decision.
“I think it’s a good thing because it’s going to be very, you know, if it were to be a regular grand jury there’s be some distractions,” DeVargas said after the Nov. 30 hearing. “And so this way, it’s a focused thing and so yeah, I’m happy with that.”
Lidyard said he spoke to court staff to determine when the grand jury may be empaneled and he anticipates it taking about eight weeks to organize. He expects them to first meet in mid-February 2020.
DeVargas’s original petition asking the courts to convene the grand jury includes a letter requesting that First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna not conduct the grand jury investigation because of his campaign for Congress.
“This citizens petition for a Grand Jury Investigation may affect some people who could be important to his election efforts,” the letter states. “We are also aware that the District Attorneys office (sic) may be understaffed and overloaded with cases as evidence by cases dismissed for non-prosecution.”
According to state law, a district attorney or their assistants “shall attend the grand jury, examine witnesses and prepare indictments, reports and other undertaking,” unless they are otherwise disqualified.
Lidyard gave DeVargas two weeks from Oct. 30 to file a motion with reasons why Serna’s office should be disqualified from handling the grand jury proceedings.
The deadline to submit the motion is Nov. 13.
If DeVargas does decide to file a motion for disqualification, Lidyard said he will hold another hearing “to make a ruling to whether or not the District Attorney is disqualified and then I could appoint the Attorney General to preside over this grand jury proceeding.”
DeVargas said he has no personal animus against Serna, but is concerned about a conflict of interest due to his being in the race for Congress.
“If he’s going to win that election he has to win Rio Arriba County, and if he’s going to be investigating Rio Arriba County political figures, it gets dicey,” he said. “Rio Arriba is a trip.”
While the Authority is its own independent government entity, its members are from local surrounding governments.
The Authority is formed through a Joint Powers Agreement signed by Santa Clara Pueblo, Ohkay Owingeh, the County and the city of Española.
Española City Councilor John Ramon Vigil, for example, has donated $100 to Serna’s campaign for Congressional District 3. Vigil is not named as a party in DeVargas’s Authority petition.
A search of federal campaign finance records does not show any campaign contributions from either Santa Clara Pueblo or Ohkay Owingeh.
“I think that a person that has the political ambitions that Mr. Serna has, that’s going to be a consideration,” DeVargas said. “I don’t think there’s any way for him to get away from that as a consideration.”
DeVargas filed the petition to convene the grand jury using Article 14 of the New Mexico Constitution, which states a judge can convene a grand jury upon the filing of a petition with signatures from 200 or 2 percent of registered voters in a given county.
DeVargas collected more than 500 signatures.