More controversy for a New Mexico town that thrives on it

IT LOOKS QUIET ENOUGH: The town of Sunland Park, N.M., is once again at the center of a political controversy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

When you think about political mischief in New Mexico, the border town of Sunland Park springs right to mind.

After all, it’s the place where a mayor once said an agreement he signed should be voided because he was too drunk at the time to know what he was doing.

And home to a recent voter fraud conviction as well as charges of extortion and prostitution.

Now, another fracas has broken out with a longtime member of the state Legislature claiming she lost a close re-election race because of what she alleges are questionable absentee ballots that came from Sunland Park.

“Right now, we’re just diligently trying to collect the facts of what occurred during absentee balloting down in Sunland Park,” Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces told the Las Cruces Sun-News of the legal papers she filed in district court for a recount in the Democratic Party primary she lost by just 16 votes to Bealquin “Bill” Gomez.

According to Doña Ana County Bureau of Elections figures, Gomez won an overwhelming number of absentee votes in the June 3 primary. Gomez finished with 88 absentee votes, compared to just 15 for Garcia. A third Democrat, Christian Lira, received just one absentee vote and finished in a distant third place overall.

The secretary of state’s office, which oversees statewide elections, confirmed to New Mexico Watchdog it’s investigating a complaint filed about the House District 34 election. “The Office of the Secretary of State is conducting an investigation into the issues raised in that complaint,” spokesman Ken Ortiz said in an email, but didn’t offer any more specifics.

“I think it’s a bunch of bull,” Gomez said of Garcia’s challenge. “I got the most votes and that’s the way it goes … I think she’s a sore loser … I ran a clean campaign. I won and that’s the way life is.”

But Garcia isn’t the only candidate complaining about absentee ballots coming from Sunland Park.

Merrie Lee Soules also lost a close race in the Democratic primary — by 137 votes — to Sandy Jones for the Public Regulation Commission in District 5, which covers the southwest part of the state.

Although Soules said she hasn’t made up her mind whether to file for a recount, she is questioning what she says is an inordinate number of absentee votes from the Sunland Park area that went against her.

“Yes, there are some questions,” Soules told New Mexico Watchdog in a brief phone interview Friday. Soules didn’t give more specifics, saying she preferred to wait until she made a decision on filing for a recount.

JUST 16 VOTES: Incumbent state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Dona Ana County, alleges that suspicious absentee ballots helped put challenger Bill Gomez over the top in their Democratic primary election June 3.

Garcia’s challenge is before 3rd Judicial District Court Judge Jim Martin, who has not set a date for the recount.

While Garcia lost by just 16 votes, the margin was not small enough to trigger an automatic, state-mandated recount. For that to happen, a race must be decided by 0.5 percent or less. The margin between Gomez and Garcia in the House District 34 race was 1.8 percent.

As a result, Garcia has to pick up the cost of the recount, which is estimated to be about $2,000 to $3,000. Should Garcia eventually win the race, the county will pick up the tab.

Gomez said voters simply preferred him over Garcia, who has served in the Legislature for 17 years, and said he’s confident his edge in absentee ballots will hold up.

“She’s complaining about the signatures,” Gomez said. “How does she know? Does she have a handwriting expert? I hear she and her people are harassing voters in Sunland Park. That just makes voters upset and less likely to vote.”

Garcia chastised Sunland Park city council members after a series of chaotic meetings at city hall in 2011 and called for the state to take over the city government — something the state eventually did in 2012.

This latest controversy is the just the latest in a string of scandals for the town of 20,000 that’s located just north of the Mexican border and west of the Texas state line:

*In August 2011, then-mayor Martin Resendiz admitted in a deposition he was drunk when he signed nine contracts with a California firm that sued the city government for not paying for services rendered.

*In February 2012, extortion charges were filed against a mayoral candidate who allegedly tried to blackmail an opponent who was shown receiving a lap dance from a topless woman on videotape. Daniel Salinas — the alleged blackmailer — defeated Gerardo Hernandez — the lap dance recipient — in city elections, but couldn’t assume office because the charges against him stipulated he couldn’t step foot into city hall.

*Later in 2012, Salinas and city manager Jaime Aguilera entered the equivalent of not guilty pleas to extortion charges.

*In May 2012, State Auditor Hector Balderas said his office confirmed that Salinas spent more than $42,000 from the city’s Border Crossing Fund to “pay for prostitutes for Salinas and the City’s former public information officer, Arturo Alba, during a trip to Mexico.”

*In March 2013, former city employee Silvia Gomez admitted to multiple charges of voter fraud for inducing non-residents to vote in the 2012 Sunland Park elections, which were marred by allegations of voter tampering.

*Salinas is still awaiting trial on multiple charges that include bribery, extortion and receiving illegal kickbacks.

After spending two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to help run Sunland Park’s dysfunctional city government, the Department of Finance and Administration on June 5 returned complete control of the city’s management to Sunland Park officials.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

Top