FBI seizes thousands from former sheriff’s ‘scholarship fund’

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – KRQE News 13 has uncovered new details into another federal criminal investigation into a former New Mexico sheriff and an alleged ticket fixing operation. Investigators with the FBI say the sheriff would let his deputies let drivers off the hook from a traffic ticket if they paid into a scholarship fund. They say the person behind it was former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, but he’s not the only one implicated.

In a newly filed FBI search warrant that KRQE News 13 has obtained, investigators claim former sheriff Rodella used his deputies to help raise more than $3,000 in donations to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office Scholarship Fund. That money has been seized and according to the FBI, the way that the fund got its money amounts to extortion.

Rodella is now serving 10 years in prison for civil rights violations and gun charges. However, the federal government is still investigating his role in the alleged extortion case.

According to the search warrant executed by the FBI in mid-January, the agency has seized $3,275 from the scholarship fund that Rodella started at the Valley National Bank, a bank with a branch in Española. The FBI says all of the money that went in to the fund is accounted for and says no scholarships were ever distributed.

Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for the FBI’s Albuquerque office told News 13 that, “The FBI intends for the money to be returned to the payers.”

The investigation goes back more than two years and was the source of at least one FBI raid of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. Federal investigators say they believe that while he was sheriff of the department, Rodella cut deals with at least nine drivers facing traffic tickets. The investigation alleges that if drivers paid $500 into the scholarship fund, their ticket would be dropped.

Investigators say the department ended up dropping two speeding tickets, one careless driving ticket and at least six tickets for driving with a suspended or revoked license.

The documents also allege that former sheriff Rodella’s old spokesman, Jake Arnold also helped set up the fund. KRQE News 13 called Arnold on Tuesday. Arnold declined to comment about the assertions made by the FBI. However, Arnold told KRQE News 13 that federal investigators have told him he’s not facing any charges.

Arnold says that the scholarship fund did nothing wrong and that donations made to it were either by community members at will, or through the sheriff’s office’s “ticket diversion” program. According to court filings, that program allowed prosecutors to decide if a ticket would be dropped after a voluntary donation was made to one of four beneficiaries, including the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office Scholarship Fund.

However, according to investigators, the sheriff’s office never told prosecutors about the program, and never told any of the other supposed beneficiaries about the program.

While the Feds think there’s enough evidence for extortion charges, federal prosecutors refused to tell KRQE News 13 today if they’ll pursue charges.

New administration inside the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that the FBI has frozen the scholarship account. However, a spokesman said if they can gain access to the funds once again, their goal is to “make it right” and pay back those who paid in.

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