Reckless driving, ethics charges filed against Grant County DA Estevez

SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico District Attorney who was caught on camera swerving all over the road is now facing charges, but it’s not just her driving that has her in trouble.

DA Francesca Estevez, the publicly elected top prosecutor in Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, is accused of reckless driving and misusing her government car, along with violating state ethics law. Estevez and her attorney couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

The charges are outlined in a 13-page document the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office filed in state district court Thursday. All of it stems from Estevez’s run-in with Silver City and New Mexico State Police nearly a year ago, on June 11, 2016.

A witness recorded video of a state-owned, dark blue Dodge Charger that Estevez was driving on U.S. Highway 180 outside of Silver City. The video, which was recorded on a Saturday, shows Estevez’s car swerving into on-coming traffic and on to the shoulder at high speed over several miles of highway driving.

Police caught up with Estevez in Silver City as she was still sitting behind the wheel of the Dodge Charger, stopped in a city-owned parking lot. Estevez told officers she had a flat tire which caused her to swerve.

While officers indeed found a flat tire, they were also concerned about Estevez’s sobriety and her behavior. Lapel camera video from Silver City Police officers showed Estevez falling into one of the seats of her car, telling conflicting stories of where she was driving from, and even appearing to practice a heel-to-toe walking test at one point. One officer even claimed that he thought Estevez was “loaded,” noting that she “almost fell down.”

But despite those concerns, officers let Estevez go, free and clear without any field sobriety tests, or charges.

The story sparked investigations into the responding officers conduct by both Silver City Police and New Mexico State Police. Silver City Police Chief Ed Reynolds admitted his officers “screwed up,” while New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said the case “should have been handled differently.”

But Estevez was never charged by either police department.

At a July 2016 press conference, Estevez refused to speak about the situation in her own words. Instead, her attorney Jim Foy spoke for her. Foy denied allegations that Estevez was driving impaired.

Attorney General’s Investigation

Based on a request from the public, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office began investigating the case against Estevez in September 2016.

By January 2017, special investigators served a search warrant on Estevez’s office, seizing numerous records including driving and maintenance logs, fuel purchase logs and receipts, and the dark blue Dodge Charger Estevez drove.

According to court documents, Estevez is being charged with reckless driving, prohibited political activities, and violating the “ethical principals of public service.”

Citing the witness video of her driving, investigators wrote that Estevez’s car “is observed crossing the white fog line approximately five times,” can be seen driving on the shoulder at least twice, and can be seen crossing the yellow center line “approximately ten times.” Investigators added that “observation of a vehicle drifting across the roadway, failing to maintain its lane and crossing into oncoming traffic is often observed in the driving of an intoxicated person.”

Investigators wrote, “Ms. Estevez’ operation of the vehicle as observed in (the witness) video and her own description of her driving indicate Ms. Estevez operated her state vehicle carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard for the rights or safety of others and without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.”

State Vehicle Use Charges & Missing Records

Estevez has also been charged with “prohibited political activities,” in relation to way she’s been using her state vehicle. According to a criminal information document filed against Estevez “did violate her duty not to use property belonging to a state agency or local government agency, or allow its use, for other than authorized purposes.”

In the criminal complaint, investigators cited Estevez’s own statements recorded on lapel camera video that she was “bringing soup to her friend Cheryl” when she got a flat tire on June 11, 2016. Investigators say Estevez was “running a personal errand.”

Investigators also say there are missing vehicle records related to Estevez’s dark blue Dodge Charger, specifically pointing to vehicle use and mileage records between April 6 and July 5, 2016. Investigators believe the sole records custodian for the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office “was untruthful regarding (the records) existence and their whereabouts.”

For example, Ms. Estevez’s use of the Dodge Charger on the day in question, and on any other day should be recorded in those logs, and those records would be the only way for anyone to know when she was using the vehicle, what she was using it for and whether that use was for official business. The abuse of this vehicle surrounding the events of July 11, 2016, is at the center of this investigation. This type of abuse is exactly what protocols such as logging of use and mileage are implemented to mitigate. Failure to fill out these types of logs means in case such as this one, no one would have ever known Ms. Estevez ever use the vehicle that day, except her counter with Law Enforcement.”

–From “Criminal Complaint and Summons” against Francesca Estevez.

 

According to the criminal complaint, investigators were able to obtain vehicle check-out logs and fuel records for the Dodge Charger between April and July of 2016. During that period, investigators believe Estevez refueled the vehicle approximately 16 times and put over 5,600 miles on the Dodge Charger’s odometer – but they do not know what Estevez was using the vehicle for, as the records detailing that information are missing.

Ethics Violations

Estevez is also accused of violating New Mexico’s Governmental Conduct Code due to conversations she’s said to have had with various law enforcement officials and state employees following her driving incident.

According to the criminal complaint, Estevez called Silver City Police Officer Leticia Lopez three times following the June 11 driving incident. Lopez was the officer who first contacted Estevez as she was pulled over in Silver City with a flat tire.

Lopez told investigators that during the first call, Estevez wanted “to thank her for everything.” During a second call “a few days later,” Lopez told investigators that Estevez was “irate,” saying someone told her (Estevez) that her deputy district attorney, George Zsoka had “been given information that she (Ms. Estevez) was intoxicated at the time of the incident on June 11, 2016.” Lopez says Estevez told her “these were all lies.”

Lopez told investigators that she got a third call sometime later, but couldn’t hear Estevez very well and their conversation ended. Lopez says the calls stopped after Silver City Police Chief Ed Reynolds intervened.

In another incident investigators say shows a violation of the Government Conduct Code’s Ethical Principles of Public Service, Estevez is accused of abusing her power, position and/or authority “in pursuit of her private interest by making repeated untrue claims and slandering Officer (Kyle) Spurgeon.”

Spurgeon is the Silver City Police Officer who said Estevez was “loaded” during the June 11 driving incident. When police contacted Estevez on the day of the incident, Estevez accused Spurgeon of having a role in a prior incident involving the drawing of a swastika. Spurgeon denied Estevez’s claim.

A month later, at a July 2016 event, Estevez was recorded on lapel camera speaking about Spurgeon again, this time to a Silver City Police Corporal. In speaking of Spurgeon, Estevez told the corporal “of all the rabid, Nazi, bigots you’re gonna choose as a police officer,” and claimed that “he hates people of color.”

In an interview with investigators, Spurgeon said he “believes (Estevez’s) repeated claims against him were retaliation against him because he had been portrayed in the media as being the only officer that wanted to see her investigated during the incident on June 11, 2016.” Spurgeon also said he “had not done any of the things Ms. Estevez accused him of,” and felt she was jeopardizing his safety.

In a final incident cited by investigators, Estevez is accused of questioning a New Mexico Probation and Parole officer about the qualifications of another probation and parole officer, Eric Morales. Morales is the brother of New Mexico State Senator Howie Morales.

Sen. Morales gave an interview to KRQE News 13 on July 21, 2016, detailing his concerns with the allegations against Estevez.

According to the criminal complaint, on August 2, 2016, Estevez is said to have asked New Mexico Probation and Parole Officer Arthur Quintana for Eric Morales’ resume. According to the complaint, “Ms. Estevez told (Quintana) that she had received a complaint about” (Morales,) alleging that, “Ofc. Eric Morales was not qualified to do that job and was only hired because his brother is State Senator Howie Morales.” Estevez is also accused of asking Quintana to keep the conversation “confidential.”

Investigators believe Estevez “abused her power, position or authority in attempting to discredit Ofc. Eric Morales and obtain his resume.” Investigators added that Estevez’s contact with Ofc. Quintana “constitutes a violation of the Government Conduct Code’s Ethical Principals of Public Service.”

Estevez’s Response

KRQE News 13 also reached out by email to Estevez and her attorney, Jim Foy for comment early Thursday afternoon, but did not receive a response as of 10 p.m.

Following the execution of a search warrant on Estevez’s office by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office in January, Foy accused the AG’s Office of “political grandstanding.”

According to the court filings, Estevez has also refused to speak with the Attorney General’s investigators.

Read the full complaint and summons below, or click here.

 

 

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