WHAT TO DO ABOUT TOMMY?: New Mexico county sheriff Tommy Rodella refuses to resign after a conviction in federal court but the county manager says taxpayers in Rio Arriba County are through paying his salary.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
ESPAÑOLA, N.M. — Despite a conviction on two felony charges and facing up to 17 years in federal prison, Tommy Rodella has still refused to resign as sheriff of Rio Arriba County.
But Wednesday, the county manager said residents in the northern New Mexico community are no longer paying Rodella’s $56,000 salary and, as long as Rodella’s conviction stands, he will never again run for political office in the county.
“I ended his pay Friday once a conviction was rendered,” said Tomás Campos, Rio Arriba county manager. “Once he’s declared a felon, he can no longer be an elected official … And the commission declared they wouldn’t pay for his legal defense, either, so that’s it. There’s no tax money being spent.”
County commissioners discussed Wednesday how to handle the Rodella situation. After a 43-minute executive session, they announced plans to appoint a new sheriff Thursday.
Commissioners did not elaborate but are expected to promote James Luján, a former officer at the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office once fired by Rodella but who returned to defeat him in June’s Democratic Party primary. There is no Republican opponent in November, and Luján was scheduled to assume office the first of the year.
“It’s important because the deputies are the ones on the front line and they’re the ones that need someone in charge,” Campos said.
Since Friday, when Rodella was convicted of one count of violating a resident’s civil rights, county undersheriff Vince Crespin has been the office’s acting sheriff. Rodella, defiant to the end, has not turned in his resignation.
MAKING A MOVE: The Rio Arriba County Commission announced it will make a new appointment to county sheriff on Thursday.
A review of the county’s website shows Rodella’s profile has been scrubbed.
Campos joined the three county commissioners in the closed-door session Wednesday, joined by First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, whose jurisdiction includes Rio Arriba County.
Pacheco has filed a petition with the state district court, calling on the court to declare the sheriff’s job vacant in light of the conviction.
“The Rio Arriba County Commissioners are hesitant to take action in recognizing or filling the vacancy … without a Court order or formal interpretation of the law,” Pachecho said in the petition.
Rodella, who has a sentencing hearing scheduled Dec. 26, faces up to 10 years for the criminal civil rights violation plus a mandatory seven-year term for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
Rodella insists he’s not guilty and says Damon Martinez, the U.S. District Attorney in Albuquerque, has a vendetta against him— something Martinez flatly denies.
Since Rodella was initially charged in an incident in March — a 26-year-old motorist accused the sheriff of pulling a gun and shoving his badge into the motorist’s face — Rodella turned back calls from the commission to resign and collected his salary.
But Campos said Wednesday that ended the moment Rodella was convicted by a jury of 11 women and one man.
“This wasn’t just done arbitrarily or capricious,” Campos said. “It’s been thought out.”
Before becoming sheriff, Rodella earned state pension benefits for serving 13 years for the state police. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the general counsel for the New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association said Rodella’s conviction won’t affect his ability to collect benefits.
But the conviction will keep him from ever running again for public office in Rio Arriba County, Campos said. That is, unless Rodella is successful on appeal.
“I have a sense of calm, but I never have a sense of relief,” Campos said. “I’ve seen so many things happen in the last 20 years.”
In Campos’ four years as county manager, he has clashed with Rodella, but Campos told New Mexico Watchdog the two have known each other all their lives and are distantly related.
“I never thought he’d get convicted,” Campos said. “I’m not happy he’s in jail, but we’ve had a very difficult time dealing with him as a sheriff.”