Inside the Capitol

Friday, August 06, 2004

3 Sheriffs Still Slippery

SANTA FE – The three sheriffs trying to dig up Billy the Kid and his mother are a slippery bunch of varmints. Their responses to my information requests have been full of contradictions and pieces that don’t fit together.
The sheriffs claim they are conducting an official criminal investigation, so they can’t tell me anything about what they are doing or how much time and money they are spending on the investigation.
That is important information to me because I contend that they are wasting a great amount of time and taxpayer money going after possible criminals who committed their acts over a century ago. And all they are accomplishing is the likely destruction of a legend that no longer will be able to boost tourism in Silver City and Fort Sumner.
But at other times, the sheriffs tell me the total investigation is funded with private money and they don’t have to tell me about that either. It seems highly unlikely that private money is paying their salaries and funding the operation of their offices while they spend time on their investigation, but it may be paying many other expenses.
So what are we to make of a privately-funded criminal investigation? Is that good public policy? It does save taxpayer money. But think about it. What happens if rich folks can fund criminal investigations? They can take over New Mexico law enforcement. They can go after whomever they want. It sounds like vigilante justice.
It also sounds a little like the infamous Santa Fe Ring that controlled sheriffs and district attorneys and judges back in Billy’s day. That’s what Billy and John Tunstall and Alexander McSween were fighting against.
Is history repeating itself? Well, it’s probably not that bad, but someone is putting a large amount of money into financing a criminal investigation. And we have a right by law to know who it is.
Private money entering public coffers to be used for operational purposes must be open to sunshine laws. In this case, it becomes part of an official criminal investigation by public officials, thereby “changing color” and becoming subject to public scrutiny.
But the current situation is totally different. The sheriffs are shielding the identity of their benefactor and the use of all money received. Depending on their audience, they are shielding that information either as part of a criminal investigation or as the act of private citizens doing some privately-funded research on their own.
In fact, sometimes, they’re just three good old boys out having fun, proclaiming that it will be good for tourism and maybe there might even be a book or movie deal in it.
The public has a right to know what is happening. Where is the money coming from and for what hidden purpose? This intrigue extends all the way up to the governor and apparently there is more than one anonymous benefactor. The public has a right know what, if anything, these benefactors are receiving in return.
At this point, the sheriffs are playing a shell game with us. They said they are really conducting an “ongoing criminal investigation.” That should mean taxpayer expenses. But Sullivan and Graves claim “private” benefactors and Sederwall surprisingly told the Attorney General that he was using his “own private funds.”
The sheriffs claim their “criminal investigation” shields them from releasing information. That would be information about “criminals,” but not information about where the money is coming from.
The fact is that the sheriffs can’t shield themselves from scrutiny by claiming that any of their acts are private since they are all public officials conducting a very public case.
And what about Deputy Sederwall, who seems to be doing most of the leg work in this investigation. He presents himself as a deputy, authorized to conduct a criminal investigation and dig up bodies, but when I inquired as to the conditions of his deputizing, I was told he is only a “reserve” deputy, a title that doesn’t even appear in state statutes.
We’ll keep after this until all the pieces fit together.


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