Waste Authority Truck

Prosecutors with the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office tried to halt a grand jury investigation into potential crimes at the North Central Solid Waste Authority, weeks before the DA's Office is set to present evidence in the case, court records show.

Assistant District Attorney B. Douglas Wood argued at a Feb. 27 district court hearing that an April 2022 order by New Mexico's Supreme Court limits the scope of grand jury cases state prosecutors can pursue during the pandemic, apparently preventing the DA’s participation in the long-awaited probe. 

While most grand juries are empaneled at the request of prosecutors seeking criminal indictments, the grand jury investigation into the waste authority is the result of a citizen’s petition signed by hundreds of Rio Arriba County residents demanding judicial scrutiny of the utility’s alleged criminal acts. 

New Mexico is one of just a handful of states that allows for citizen-initiated grand jury investigations.

“We have an objection to lodge from the DA’s Office with respect to the convening of the grand jury right now,” Wood said at the hearing. “Certainly I don’t want...the court to misunderstand our intentions. It sounds like this is something that needs to convene, but the last order that I have from the Supreme Court...does not, from my readings or the readings of the other chiefs in our office, permit our assistance in this particular type of matter at the present.” 

District Court Judge Jason Lidyard indicated the state Supreme Court’s April order was aimed at limiting prosecutorial overuse of grand juries, not at stopping a grand jury inquiry like the one set to investigate the waste authority. 

“The court doesn’t find that your oral objection is well taken, and it’s denied at this time,” Lidyard said.

The grand jury will be empaneled for three months starting April 24 to consider “allegations of malfeasance, misappropriation of public monies, billing and collecting money for services not rendered, fraud” and any other alleged illegal acts by those associated with or employed by the waste authority or Rio Arriba County, according to the 2019 order by Lidyard establishing the grand jury case.

The First Judicial District Attorney’s Office represents the citizens of Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Los Alamos Counties.

Lidyard tasked Wood with presenting evidence to the grand jury, which could result in criminal charges against individuals in Rio Arriba County and beyond. The investigative body will meet separately to consider the allegations of financial wrongdoing made in the original citizen’s petition, Lidyard said. 

The successful petition was submitted to the court in June 2019 by Antonio DeVargas, a La Madera resident and longtime activist who’s fighting the authority over a lien it placed on his home. He said he would work to supply Wood with documents and identify potential witnesses to testify in the case.

The waste authority, a government utility, has placed nearly a thousand active liens on customers’ properties for unpaid garbage bills, records show. Many customers have said they stopped paying the authority because their trash was not being picked up. Garbage routinely goes uncollected across the county on waste authority routes, causing concerns among residents over potential public health risks.

The grand jury probe follows decades of allegations of financial and operational mismanagement at the authority, including alleged predatory collections practices, alleged falsification of financial records or embezzlement and, more recently, the death of an employee killed on the job, according to court records and interviews with authority customers. 

In an interview with the SUN Tuesday, Wood said it was not his intention to try and have the grand jury case dimissed at the Feb. 27 hearing.

“What we were really hoping to achieve was to suspend it until either the [state Supreme Court] order is lifted or we have clear direction that we can proceed [with] a grand jury that was composed in this way,” he said.

Wood said he’s still familiarizing himself with the allegations involving the waste authority, and that the DA’s Office intends to follow through with the grand jury probe. Wood indicated prosecutors still have concerns over the Supreme Court order and could not rule out the possibility his office would would seek a postponement, or dismissal, of the case.

Wood said anyone with information about potential criminal conduct at the waste authority should contact local law enforcement or the DA’s Office. 

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