Investigation of BernCo inmate labor fell through cracks

Jail inmate cleaning crew
Investigation of BernCo inmate labor fell through cracks.

BERNALILLO COUNTY, N.M. (KRQE) – Bernalillo County officials this week are scrambling to resurrect a long-dormant investigation into why a group of jail inmates on house arrest was sent to the upscale South Valley homes of Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz and some of his friends with weed whackers, rakes and hedge trimmers to do some clean-up work.

The investigation also was supposed to focus on why the group of inmates — assigned to the “clean team” through the county’s Community Custody Program and overseen by Ernie Metzgar, a friend of De La Cruz’s — spent a large majority of its work time in De La Cruz’s district.

The clean team is supposed to spread its work throughout the county, and private residences are off limits.

But for seven months, not one person involved with or aware of the clean team’s activities was asked a single question about them.

“This has fallen through the cracks,” Tom Swisstack, deputy county manager for public safety, told KRQE News 13. “I’m going to put this on the front burner now. Not having an answer is unacceptable.”

Metropolitan Detention Center Capt. Ray Gonzales completed a preliminary investigation in December. In an interview, he said the private residences listed as locations for the clean team’s work and the high instance of work in De La Cruz’s South Valley district were “red flags.”

Documents obtained by News 13 through a public records request show that the clean team was assigned to De La Cruz’s residence and to several other homes in the Valley last July. Some of those homes belong to friends of De La Cruz.

The documents show that for the overwhelming majority of days the clean team was assigned to work during the past year, its assignment was to a public location. For example, the team often cleans at golf courses, churches, community centers or the landfill near the MDC. On other occasions, the team was assigned to an intersection, such as Second Street and Rio Bravo, to clean along the roadside.

After finishing his review, Gonzales sent the case to Matthew Marquez of the county’s Human Resources division.

He said he passed the case along to avoid the conflict inherent in investigating Metzgar, who reports to Gonzales.

Marquez told News 13 he gave the case a cursory review as a “courtesy” to MDC officials, but decided it wasn’t the type of thing HR would look into. He said he personally handed Gonzales’ preliminary findings to Swisstack, who oversees the jail, in January.

“I don’t remember that happening,” Swisstack said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it.”

So the case sat, until News 13 started asking questions about it two weeks ago. Now, Swisstack said he will launch a full investigation, possibly using a contracted private investigations firm.

De La Cruz said he had never heard the allegations about misuse of the clean team until News 13 contacted him for an interview last week. He said he welcomed an investigation, but his answers during a 20-minute interview indicated that he didn’t think one was necessary.

“No one (from the clean team) ever stepped on my property,” he said. “I just want to make that clear right now.”

The longtime county official did, however, acknowledge that his office asked Metzgar to send the clean team to his neighborhood and to the neighborhoods of at least two of his friends. He said there’s a simple, innocent explanation for that.

“I was part of the annual Albuquerque Garden Center garden tour,” De La Cruz said, adding that his friends were, too. “And so I was asked by representatives of the garden center, a non-profit organization, to try to make sure that the roadways leading to the homes were in relatively good condition.”

De La Cruz said the entire thing was above boards and within the parameters set out for the clean team. He suggested that News 13 contact Irene Kersting of the garden center to confirm his account, then said: “Positive slant on this story, please guys.”

Kersting, reached by telephone, repeated De La Cruz’s version of events.

Metzgar, the $65,000-a-year clean team supervisor and friend of De La Cruz’s, did not.

He spent more than 20 minutes speaking with News 13 about the clean team’s trips to the commissioner’s and his friends’ homes.

Metzgar said he has never ordered the team to clean a private residence.

“Probably we were doing the streets around the area,” he said. “It wasn’t his home though. It’s the street that he’s asked us to clean all around the area outside the homes … He’ll just say can you go clean this area for us, so we do it and, that’s what we do.”

But Metzgar, who spoke with News 13 prior to our interview with De La Cruz, never mentioned a garden tour.

A News 13 review of public records showed that, during the past year, the clean team worked in De La Cruz’s district 81 percent of the time — and 19 percent of the time in the other four county commissioners’ districts.

“What’s happened is: Commissioner De La Cruz has asked us to do a lot more in District 2,” Metzgar said. “But all the commissioners have the opportunity to ask us where to go and what to do.”

De La Cruz had an explanation for that, too. He said his district has the largest swaths of unincorporated areas in the county.

“We’re their only form of government,” De La Cruz said. “So if they have a pothole, whether it’s weeds or whatever the issue is, we’re their only form of government. They cannot call the mayor, they cannot call a city councilor.”

For Swisstack, the deputy county manager, the whole thing needs a thorough investigation.

“How it fell through the cracks is what I’m trying to figure out,” he said. “I need to know whether someone was using inmate labor inappropriately, and I need to know: How do I prevent this from happening again?”

Swisstack promised to share the results of his investigation with the public once it’s complete.

De La Cruz said he welcomes the findings. And this isn’t the first time he has been on the hot seat, facing allegations that he abused his position.

Last year, he was accused of throwing his weight as a commissioner around to get a Rio Grande High School wrestler, who had been suspended for bullying, into the state wrestling competition.

And the year before, he intervened with a telephone call to County Sheriff Dan Houston after the son of a friend flunked an exam at the BCSO Academy.

News 13 asked De La Cruz about the potential impact of a series of allegations about him misusing his power.

“It’s never been favoritism. It’s always been what I thought at the time was for the good of the public,” he said.

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