LAS VEGAS, N.M. (KRQE) – A man who garnered the public trust of hundreds of voters in northern New Mexico is now facing a state investigation while his presence on a school board has put an entire district in a legal limbo.
In a bizarre case that involves criminal background and the rules about who can hold a public political office, West Las Vegas Schools Board of Education member Anthony Leroy Benavidez is said to be breaking the law.
Benavidez may be New Mexico’s only public school board member with a felony record. It’s not a surprise to Benavidez either. He knows what he’s doing is almost certainly illegal.
According to applications of New Mexico state statute, it’s against the law for convicted felons, including Benavidez, to serve in positions of “public trust.” However, according to court documents detailing Benavidez’s criminal history and state statute, Benavidez has likely been violating state law since he took office in March 2015.
And since December 2015, Benavidez appears to have been defying state law.
“I didn’t go over there to play games,” said Benavidez of his position on the West Las Vegas School Board of Education.
Benavidez is still a member of the West Las Vegas School Board, now about three months after he and the district were first notified that his criminal record likely disqualifies him from serving in the capacity of a school board member.
The embattled first time politician sat down for an interview with KRQE News 13 last week.
“You do understand that, (New Mexico) state law says what you’re doing is wrong?” asked KRQE News 13 reporter Chris McKee.
“Yeah I understand, now I understand,” said Benavidez.
Despite that admission, Benavidez insists that he will keep serving in his school board position, even if what he’s doing is illegal.
“I want to finish what I started,” said Benavidez.
The unique situation has been hidden from public view for months, but now has some board members stepping forward to voice concern.
“It puts the district at risk,” said Marvin Martinez, a West Las Vegas School board member, and the board’s current Vice Chair.
Martinez and fellow board member Christine Ludi said they think Benavidez’s tenure threatens decisions impacting thousands of students in the West Las Vegas School District.
“He’s not eligible to be here,” said Ludi, speaking of Benavidez’s role on the school board.
Who is Anthony Leroy Benavidez?
Most people know Anthony Leroy Benavidez simple as “Leroy.” The lifelong Las Vegas, New Mexico resident is a first time school board member, having won election to his position in February 2015. Benavidez took office in March 2015.
While Benavidez tells News 13 that his work is now focused on helping kids and schools, Benavidez also has a much different past that involves multiple arrests for drug offenses..
“I had a hard time,” said Benavidez, speaking of his past problems with the law.
Benavidez says he’s “not hiding” from his past problems and admits he’s been booked in the San Miguel County jail more than once.
“I did do cocaine,” said Benavidez.
New Mexico online court records show Benavidez was charged with cocaine possession in 1998 and drug possession in 2001. According to records, in Benavidez’s 1998 cocaine possession case, his sentence was deferred.
According to a 2014 New Mexico Supreme Court decision, under a deferred sentence, convicted felons can have all of their civil rights restored upon completion of their sentence. For Benavidez, a deferred felony sentence would not have counted against him in terms of eligibility to hold public office.
However, the state’s online court records show that Benavidez pleaded guilty to his 2001 felony drug possession case. Court records show a “certificate of conviction” was ordered against Benavidez in 2002. That conviction is what is now causing questions as to Benavidez’s eligibility to hold public office.
Under New Mexico statute chapter 31, article 13, section 1, paragraph, “E,” state law says that convicted felons cannot serve in “positions of public trust,” unless they have a pardon from the New Mexico Office of the Governor.
Court records show Benavidez is still considered a convicted felon, without a pardon from the New Mexico governor.
NEW MEXICO STATE STATUTE: Felony conviction; restoration of citizenship.
“E. A person who has been convicted of a felony shall not be permitted to hold an office of public trust for the state, a county, a municipality or a district, unless the person has presented the governor with a certificate verifying the completion of the sentence and was granted a pardon or a certificate by the governor restoring the person’s full rights of citizenship.”
Source: NMSA 1978 § 31-13-1.
Benavidez claims no one ever told him it was illegal for convicted felons to hold public office.
“They had said that if I was… I was on probation or parole, (actively,) that I couldn’t sign that form, and I wasn’t,” said Benavidez.
San Miguel County Clerk Geraldine Gutierrez told News 13 that her office did not check Benavidez’s criminal background when he registered as a candidate. That’s because New Mexico clerks are not required to run background checks on anyone seeking office.
According to Gutierrez, the responsibility of verifying a candidate’s legal eligibility lies with the candidate themselves. In San Miguel County, each election candidate is required to sign a “declaration of candidacy” form, which includes a statement acknowledging that candidate is “legally qualified” for the position, and that they could be charged with a felony for knowingly making a false statement.
When he registered for the school board election, the only check Benavidez was subject to was a review of his voter registration. That practice is standard for New Mexico clerks as a way to confirm a candidate’s eligibility to run for elected office. Ideally, a voter registration card proves that a candidate has the required residence for the position they’re seeking.
Because Benavidez is not currently on probation or parole, he is legally eligible to vote in New Mexico. State law allows convicted felons to earn their right to vote again, once they’ve complete probation or parole. (NMSA 1978 § 31-13-C.)
While Benavidez has a valid voter registration, West Las Vegas Schools’ legal counsel claims state statute proves that Benavidez is ineligible to hold an elected office.
Hidden School Board Investigation
In December 2015, attorneys with Santa Fe and Albuquerque-based law firm Cuddy & McCarthy first raised the issue of Benavidez’s criminal record and his position on the board. The school district’s legal counsel did not state who gave them the initial information, but only that Benavidez’s record had been “brought to the attention of (the) firm.”
According to a letter from the law firm dated January 14, 2016, West Las Vegas School Board Chair David Romero was the first and only board member that was told of Benavidez’s record.
The letter details Benavidez’s 2002 felony drug possession arrest and conviction. Attorneys also detailed the applications of state law, their inability to find a record for a pardon for Benavidez, and their recommendations about how to move forward.
The school district’s attorneys recommended to Board Chair Romero that Benavidez resign from his post. Attorneys also suggested that the board indicate his resignation would be for “personal reasons,” and the the issue be handled “internally before any members of the public or media become aware of the situation.”
Board Chair Romero said he made the attorney’s findings aware to Benavidez, but that Benavidez declined to resign.
Romero said there was nothing more he could do.
“In everything that I’ve researched, there’s nothing that… nothing as a board (that) we can do to remove him,” said Romero.
However, Romero also decided to keep the rest of the board in the dark, declining to inform them of the legal counsel’s research, concerns and advice.
“The advice that you know, I’ve been given through the attorney is, in my opinion, wrong, so I guess you could say we disagree as to how steps should be taken,” said Romero.
In part, Romero says he felt the information from the school district’s attorneys was politically motivated. Romero, Benavidez and another board member, Patrick Marquez, recently voted against a raise for West Las Vegas Schools Superintendent Don Parson. That vote came before Romero was informed of Benavidez’s criminal history.
“Had all this been handled different, you know, I think it would have been a different outcome,” said Romero.
In early March 2016, attorneys for West Las Vegas Schools gave the rest of the school board the information about Benavidez’s criminal history. Board Chair Romero tells News 13 that he also asked Benavidez if he would resign during a public meeting. Benavidez declined, again.
Board Members Concerned
“We’re not after him, the law is the law,” said Christine Ludi, another member of the West Las Vegas Schools Board of Education and the board’s current secretary.
Ludi and fellow board member Marvin Martinez say they don’t want Benavidez taking part in any future votes.
“We’re not prepared to move forward with anything, anymore board meetings, of any type until that has been taken care of,” said Martinez.
The two board members believe Benavidez’s vote is illegal and could hurt the school’s bond rating. The district is also expected to vote on the superintendent’s job and the district’s next budget soon.
“These decisions that we’re making could either be challenged, there’s liabilities to us,” said Ludi.
Benavidez disagrees, and says he doesn’t see the liability.
During an interview with KRQE News 13, reporter Chris McKee asked Benavidez if he would resign from his position because of the allegations.
“My constituents keep on telling me not to,” said Benavidez. “No, I won’t!”
Benavidez told News 13 he would only step down if people involved in the schools put pressure on him.
“If I have teachers and administrators and students or whatever tell me to step down, I will step down, the right personnel, not the ones that are deep in politics,” said Benavidez.
Another board member, Patrick Marquez said he supports Benavidez and his continued service on the school board.
“He didn’t lie about his past and I see the passion that Mr. Benavidez has for the school,” said Marquez.
However, that support is unlikely to change the law.
As part of their concern, board members Martinez and Ludi recently requested for the Public Education Department to review Benavidez’s eligibility on the West Las Vegas School Board of Education.
However, PED spokesman Robert McEntyre told KRQE News 13 that the PED does not have the authority to remove specific board members. The department has since forwarded the request to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which says it is now conducting a review.
“We are in receipt of the Public Education Department’s referral and our office is currently conducting a review of the matter.”
–James Hallinan, Spokesman for the Office of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.
So far, the AG’s Office hasn’t made any decisions. Under New Mexico law, district attorneys, the state attorney general and private citizens have the power to file a complaint to remove a school board member through a “quo warranto” court proceeding.
In the meantime, the West Las Vegas School Board will soon spend additional district funding to conduct a secondary review of Benavidez’s criminal background.
At a special meeting Tuesday evening, Benavidez and two other board members voted 3 to 1 to pass a motion hiring new legal council to review Benavidez’s criminal history and the state statutes he’s accused of violating. It’s unclear how much it will cost the district. Board member Marvin Martinez cast the only dissenting vote, while Chairman David Romero, and board members Patrick Marquez and Benavidez voted for the measure. Board member Christine Ludi was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.