SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – As the New Mexico Attorney General’s office continues to investigate a possible abuse of power related to state vehicle use by District Attorney Francesca Estevez, there are new questions about damage to other cars under the control of Estevez’s office.
Documents, photos and video obtained by KRQE News 13 indicate that at least two other vehicles owned by the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office have been significantly damaged in prior incidents that may not have been reported to police, and collectively resulted in more than $3,000 in total repairs.
Overseeing the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s office is Francesca Estevez, who was re-elected to a second four-year term in November 2016. Her office is directly responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties.
Receipts for repair on file with the state indicate Estevez’s office spent more than $2,500 to repair a 2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan with “body damage” after it “hit an embankment,” and more than $500 to repair a 2014 Ford F-150 truck with “body damage.” KRQE News 13 has been unable to obtain any crash reports explaining how the vehicles were damaged.
Estevez has been under investigation since January 2017, following a raid of her Silver City office. Investigators seized her dark blue Dodge Charger and vehicle records in relation to a June 2016 driving incident.
The incident was captured on cell phone video by a witness who was following behind Estevez’s state-owned Dodge Charger. The roughly six-minute recording shows Estevez’s vehicle swerving into oncoming traffic and onto the shoulder multiple times along Highway 180, west of Silver City.
After the witness called 911, Silver City Police eventually caught up with Estevez, who was pulled over at a gas station in the middle of town. Lapel camera video shows how officers found Estevez’s vehicle with a flat tire and other damage.
“Yeah, I don’t know what she ran over here, man,” said Silver City Police Officer Leticia Lopez.
In police reports, multiple officers noted “vegetation” or “grass” lodged in the front bumper of Estevez’s car. Estevez told officers she “didn’t know” what happened, only that she got a flat tire.
“I didn’t think I did anything wrong except I swerved to try to main (sic) control,” said Estevez to a Silver City police officer.
In the New Mexico Attorney’s General’s Office’s search warrant, investigators noted un-repaired damage could be seen on the Dodge Charger when they surveyed the vehicle in September 2016. Investigators described “deep scratches” to the passenger’s side front bumper and fender, along with other scratches, gouges and a “yellow color transfer from an unknown source embedded in some of the gouges.”
Investigators are in part trying to determine if Estevez criminally abused her state vehicle privileges. In the search warrant, investigators stated, “it is unknown how, to whom, or by whom payment was made for maintenance, repairs or replacement to Estevez’s state vehicle, whether any insurance claims were made through the state, or whether this damage was reported as required by NMSA (state law).”
When she was stopped in June 2016, Estevez made it clear to police officers that there are rules related to reporting damage to state vehicles.
“So am I in trouble?” Estevez asked Silver City and New Mexico State Police officers.
“No, why would you be in trouble?” asked New Mexico State Police Officer Alyssa Flores.
“I have to report that,” explained Estevez, “well I don’t know, I have a flat tire, I have to report that to the state.”
“A flat tire will get you in trouble?” asked NMSP Officer Flores in response.
“No, anytime a vehicle is injured, that’s considered an…” said Estevez, in part. The remaining portion of the her sentence is unintelligible in the lapel camera recording.
New Mexico state law requires reports to be filed if there is more than $500 dollars in damage caused by a crash. Ideally, a report is supposed to provide a level of accountability to see if the state should be paying the bill, or if the driver should get in trouble for the crash.
NMSA 66-7-206: Immediate notice of accidents.
The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in bodily injury to or death of any person or property damage to an apparent extent of five hundred dollars ($500) or more shall immediately, by the quickest means of communication, give notice of the accident to the police department if the accident occurs within a municipality; otherwise to the office of the county sheriff or the nearest office of the New Mexico state police.
But as KRQE News 13 has uncovered, two other vehicles under Estevez’s office control have been damaged in the past, and it doesn’t appear that a police or crash report was ever filed.
A repair receipt obtained by KRQE News 13 shows on January 13, 2015, Estevez’s office took a white 2014 Ford F-150 truck into the service department of Silver City based car dealership, “Lawley Toyota.” Including taxes, the District Attorney’s office was charged $552.22 for work. On the receipt, a service technician wrote, “Customer states there is body damage to right side of vehicle, check and advise.”
When KRQE News 13 saw the truck parked at the DA’s office in July, deep scrapes were evident in the paint, along with a large indentation along the bottom of the front-passenger door.
According to another receipt obtained by KRQE News 13, Lawley Toyota’s service department in Silver City also took in a black 2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan for repair a day before the truck, on January 12, 2015. Including taxes, the DA’s office was charged $2,578.60 for work. On the receipt, a service technician wrote, “Customer hit an embankment. Check vehicle for damage and secure any damaged body parts if possible.”
KRQE News 13 obtained photos of the damaged Camry. While it’s unclear when the photos were taken, significant scratches can also be seen on the car.
Another receipt obtained by KRQE News 13 shows the DA’s office spent $425 on February 23, 2015, with another Silver City car repair business, Peck Motor Co. Body Shop. The receipt for repair was signed by Francesca Estevez. However, it’s unclear what car was repaired. The receipt only states “repair right fender” and “repair right front door.” There is no vehicle information in the receipt.
KRQE News 13 filed public records requests with Silver City Police, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police, requesting any crash, police or other reports filed for the Camry and the F-150 truck. Each agency said there were no reports on file.
It’s unclear who caused the damage to the F-150 truck and Camry, or who was driving the vehicles when the incidents occurred.
Payments approved, no questions asked.
In total, more than $3,000 was spent to repair Estevez’s office’s Camry and F-150 truck. In each case, the payments were approved by the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA).
KRQE News 13 asked DFA spokeswoman Julia Ruetten about what the department does to investigate or audit any questionable expenses. Ruetten told KRQE News 13, “the courts and district attorneys’ offices do not operate under the same procurement rules as executive agencies,” and referred KRQE News 13’s questions to the Administrative Office of the District Attorneys (AODA).
However, the AODA is merely what could be considered a “service agency” for the various offices of New Mexico’s district attorneys. According to state statute, the AODA assists in helping offices prepare budgets, create systems to maintain records, conduct professional training, distribute trial manuals and more. The AODA is not an oversight agency though, meaning district attorneys offices’ are not required to submit or justify expenses to the AODA.
According to New Mexico’s General Services Division, the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office controls its own motor pool. That means Estevez and her office staff have ultimate and sole oversight of their own cars and records.
KRQE News 13 called Estevez for comment about the damaged cars on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. KRQE News 13 wanted to ask Estevez how the cars were damaged, who was driving the cars, and whether or not a police report was ever filed. Estevez refused to comment.
Instead, Estevez, a publicly elected official who receives a state salary of $110,000 a year according to New Mexico’s online Sunshine portal, ordered her private attorney Jim Foy to return KRQE News 13’s phone call.
Foy, who is not a spokesman for, or employee of the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, declined to comment. Foy cited an ongoing investigation by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
In response to KRQE News’ 13 findings, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office sent the following statement:
“I can confirm that the Office of the Attorney General has executed warrants at the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Grant County. This is an ongoing investigation based on a public referral.”
–James Hallinan, spokesman, New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.