LOS LUNAS–Criminal charges against former Los Lunas Board of Education member Steven Otero have been dismissed following a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in an unrelated case earlier this week.
The state Supreme Court ruled parts of the Government Conduct Act are ethical principles public officials should follow, rather than criminal statutes.
In April, Otero was charged with two misdemeanor counts of violations of the ethical principles of public service, which is outlined in the Governmental Conduct Act.
He ran for reelection for the District 5 seat during the 2021 elections — before he was charged — but lost to Bruce Bennett.
Otero was permanently suspended from the Los Lunas Board of Education along with the other four members in November 2021 after being indefinitely suspended in May for several reasons, including violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.
While the entire board was suspended, the New Mexico Public Education Department clarified the suspension was due to the actions of “certain board members,” not the entire board, but PED never named the specific board members or their actions.
Four unrelated cases concerning different violations of the Governmental Conduct Act were heard in a single case by the New Mexico Supreme Court, in which the court considered whether the New Mexico Legislature intended for certain subsections of the act to be criminal provisions.
“Each relevant subsection communicates a general goal or proscription without specifying a wrongful deed or forbidden act,” Chief Justice Shannon Bacon wrote in the Supreme Court majority decision. “We need not entertain hypotheticals to recognize that the plain language of each subsection does not spell out what act or omission is required for its violation and does not establish criminal elements that could inform clear jury instructions.”
The New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, which filed the charges against Otero, said in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the charges against the four defendants and Otero were dismissed.
The office has not publicly been clear about which of Otero’s actions led to the charges.
“Honestly, I just feel the justice system did its due course, and I feel vindicated of what I thought all along — that there was no merit to those charges originally,” Otero told the News-Bulletin after the charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning the AG’s office could refile charges in the future.
The Governmental Conduct Act section on ethical principles reads that elected officials should view their position as a public trust and be used to advance the public interest.
“Legislators and public officers and employees shall conduct themselves in a manner that justifies the confidence placed in them by the people, at all times maintaining the integrity and discharging ethically the high responsibilities of public office,” the Governmental Conduct Act section reads.
After outlining a list of ethical principles for government officials to follow, the act goes on to outline the penalty for violations of the act — a misdemeanor punishable by the fine of no more than $1,000 or no more than a year in jail.
The other cases
The state of New Mexico v. David Gutierrez, Connie Lee Johnston, Francesca Estevez and Demesia Padilla began in district court as four different and unrelated cases. The AG’s office appealed the district court’s decision to dismiss the charges against these individuals.
Although the cases were different and the charges were dismissed on different grounds, the New Mexico Court of Appeals consolidated the cases due to the identical GCA violations they shared, according to court documents.
Gutierrez, the former county treasurer for Dona Ana County, was charged with violating the Governmental Conduct Act after allegedly pursuing an “unwanted sexual relationship” with an employee.
He reportedly offered to give the employee money and use his position as treasurer to get rid of a disciplinary write-up in exchange for sex.
Estevez, the former district attorney for the Sixth Judicial District in Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, was charged with violating the GCA after allegedly attempting to use her position to manipulate and intimidate law enforcement officers who were investigating her improper use of a state vehicle.
Johnston, a former magistrate in Aztec, N.M., was charged with violating the act after she allegedly “unlawfully recorded” conversations between her colleagues and coworkers in secure areas of the Aztec Magistrate Court building.
Padilla, the former secretary of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue department, was charged with violations of the Governmental Conduct Act after she used her position to access tax records of the accounting firm where she previously worked, as well as the records of former clients.
All four petitioners and cross-respondents appealed on the grounds that section 10-16-3, A, B and C of the GCA was unconstitutionally vague, establishes grounds for moral conduct and not were not intended to be criminally enforceable.
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.