I was looking at a posting the other day that talked about ethics and the need for ethics reform in New Mexico. The article talked about former State Sen. Manny Aragon and the recently defeated Senate Republican Whip Lee Rawson.
What I was shocked to see missing was any real discussion about the New Mexico Housing Authority and the people who are involved with it. Let’s recap some of the news.
You start out with former State Rep. Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos, who was able to get our very own Board of Finance to approve a few million dollars in bond sales for him to help “people in need” get affordable housing. Sounds good, but there turned out to be some problems.
First, we know of a judge who appears to have helped fix a few tickets, and she ends up somehow qualified to live just about rent-free in one of these houses. As for being “in need,” well, she made more than the New Mexico median income. Then we find out that the secretary for the speaker of the House of Representatives, Ben Lujan, who also made more than the median income, also happened to be living rent-free in a low income house.
But it gets even better than that. Then executive director of the Albuquerque-area housing authority, Gallegos is reported to have misused bond proceeds to do things like give himself roughly $600,000 in salary and benefits. That’s not chump change! And if that weren’t enough, it seems that Mr. Gallegos also used about $300,000 for a loan to a business that he owns, allegedly so that he could purchase lots in Las Cruces that had already been sold to the housing authority.
The hero of the day
This is only the start. But we wouldn’t know anything about all of this if it weren’t for one single lady in Las Cruces named Frances Williams. When she found out about what was going on, she started trying to find someone who would listen to her. The problem was that for some time nobody cared to hear what she had to say.
When legislators finally heard her, they introduced bipartisan legislation to address the problems she had brought to their attention. But then she was almost immediately hit with a frivolous lawsuit by Mr. Gallegos. He claimed — of all things — defamation of character and slander. It seems pretty obvious that Frances did not “defame” Smiley. His own actions did. A judge dismissed the lawsuit.
There is talk that this scandal goes way up the chain in New Mexico politics. Heath Haussamen’s blog of May 6, 2008 also discusses the relationship between Smiley Gallegos and current Speaker Lujan.
What makes this story so compelling, and so sad, is that we know that people — little people — actually got hurt. We just don’t know how many. In the ongoing courthouse scandal, with Aragon and others, yes there was an added cost to the taxpayers — perhaps a few million dollars. But in the Gallegos-Lujan scandal, people who actually needed housing got hurt, all because greedy officials were taking care of themselves with the money that was supposed to be used to help working people.
What happened to the people who saved and put money down in hopes of actually being able to own their own home? Just to see that dream disappear because of a small group of individuals’ personal greed?
Enough is enough
The attorney general of New Mexico has had this case since he took office. The former attorney general had this case. The Legislature has been fighting for some time — over the objections of people like Speaker Lujan — to find out what actually happened, to see if some light can be shed on the problem, so money can again go to helping the people who actually need the help. Why is it taking so long to get to the bottom of this issue?
The attorney general has said there is a lot of paperwork to look over and he doesn’t have the staff. That hardly makes sense. His office is supposed to investigate matters like this. He has staff to do this. Every time an issue is raised, you cannot say “I have to have staff.”
He already has staff. What he needs is courage. Why hasn’t this become a priority for folks like the attorney general of New Mexico? Can it be because the victims have no voice? (They have zero ability to hire a lobbyist and ask for help.) Or is it because the culprits have power?
A few legislators have stood up and tried to get this done, but for some reason the very people charged with looking into this seem unwilling to take any action. It raises suspicion.
Enough is enough. The longer this takes, the harder it is going to be to get documents and testimony from people involved, victims and perpetrators alike. People may move, forget or they may even die. The longer this takes the less likely we are to find out who really is involved in this scandal. The longer we wait the more likely it is people will forget the real hero who exposed this scandal — Frances Williams, the lady from Las Cruces who said, “Enough is enough.” She wouldn’t just walk away while people in New Mexico were being taken advantage of.
Thank you, Frances. And the people of New Mexico should thank you. Now all we need is another hero, like Attorney General Gary King, to step forward and do what is right. This has taken too long, and the people of New Mexico deserve better.