Op­po­nents clamor for change as AG aims to keep post

Con­tenders for state’s high­est law en­force­ment of­fice at­tack what they say are pos­si­ble po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tions

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL& REGION - By Daniel J. Chacón dcha­con@sfnewmex­i­can.com

To hear him tell it, Hec­tor Balderas has a lot to brag about.

In his first, four-year term as New Mex­ico’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Balderas has pros­e­cuted cor­rupt politi­cians, mur­der­ers and child preda­tors. He’s chal­lenged pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions, from Wells Fargo and the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico to the state’s largest health care provider in a case that was set­tled for $18.5 mil­lion. He’s also taken on the opi­oid in­dus­try and joined a coali­tion of at­tor­neys gen­eral in fil­ing law­suits, in­clud­ing against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“I have def­i­nitely built a pro­gram that rep­re­sents the most vul­ner­a­ble New Mex­i­cans and built an ag­gres­sive [in­ves­tiga­tive] and le­gal team that has had his­toric results in go­ing af­ter crim­i­nal and civil cor­rup­tion,” Balderas, a Demo­crat, said when asked what he has ac­com­plished as the state’s chief le­gal of­fi­cer.

His two op­po­nents in the Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion — Repub­li­can Michael Hen­dricks and Lib­er­tar­ian A. Blair Dunn — see things dif­fer­ently. They see the need for new lead­er­ship in the high­pro­file post, some­one who they say isn’t a self-serv­ing politi­cian like Balderas who puts his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions ahead of the peo­ple of New Mex­ico.

“It looks like what he’s try­ing to do is be­come ei­ther gov­er­nor or U.S. se­na­tor and us­ing this of­fice to get there,” said Dunn, who ran for a state se­nate seat as a Repub­li­can in 2016 but lost. “This is a very im­por­tant of­fice and be­cause of ei­ther lack of at­ten­tion or his abuse of power, New Mex­ico legally suf­fered. The le­gal health of the state is not what it should be.”

“I don’t think there’s any ques­tion as

to whether or not he’s look­ing to move to the next step­ping stone,” Hen­dricks said. “As soon as he got out of law school, within a cou­ple of years, he was a [state]

rep­re­sen­ta­tive and then he be­came [state] au­di­tor and now he’s the AG — and he was go­ing to run for gov­er­nor un­til his op­po­si­tion re­search came out.”

An im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney who grew up in cen­tral Mex­ico as the son of Bap­tist mis­sion­ar­ies, Hen­dricks, 36, said

he would work to make New Mex­ico a safer place to live by work­ing more closely with law en­force­ment.

“He’s been in of­fice for al­most four years. Do you feel safer to­day?” he asked. “Crime is our is­sue, and when I’ve talked to lo­cal law en­force­ment and I tell them, ‘Look, I want to have the AG cre­ate coali­tions, and I want it to be able to help bol­ster your front-line de­fenses against crime,’ they say, ‘Well, that would be a nice change be­cause it’s not hap­pen­ing.’ ”

Hen­dricks, who has a Master of Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion, also said he would bring his man­age­ment ex­pe­ri­ence to the job.

“The qual­i­fi­ca­tion that I bring aside from be­ing an at­tor­ney is the fact that I know busi­ness and I know ef­fi­cien­cies,” said Hen­dricks, who started his own law firm in 2015. “I’ve been in busi­ness and in man­age­ment since I was 19.”

Dunn, the son of Land Com­mis­sioner Aubrey Dunn, said he would work to make gov­ern­ment more trans­par­ent by en­forc­ing the state’s open­records law. A. Blair Dunn, who has chal­lenged the state At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice and oth­ers over ac­cess to pub­lic records, was rec­og­nized last year with an award from the New Mex­ico Foun­da­tion for Open Gov­ern­ment.

“His of­fice is hon­estly, in my opin­ion, the least trans­par­ent state agency,” Dunn said of Balderas.

Dunn has other gripes about Balderas, in­clud­ing what he calls “se­lec­tive pros­e­cu­tions.” He pointed specif­i­cally to Delta Con­sult­ing, a firm founded by gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham and state. Rep. Deb­o­rah Arm­strong, both Democrats. The firm has come un­der fire over con­tracts it re­ceived to help run a state high­risk in­surance pool.

“No­body is in­ves­ti­gat­ing Michelle,” Dunn said. “In­stead, we have pic­tures of Michelle lit­er­ally in Hec­tor’s arms.”

In re­sponse, Balderas said in an email that as at­tor­ney gen­eral, he is “pas­sion­ate about seek­ing jus­tice for New Mex­ico’s chil­dren and fam­i­lies, not pay­ing po­lit­i­cal lip ser­vice.”

Dunn, 36, also crit­i­cized Balderas for re­ceiv­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from law firms that con­tract with his of­fice.

“I voted for Hec­tor” in 2014, Dunn said. “I thought Hec­tor would turn things around and do a good job in that of­fice, but he came in and fired all of those at­tor­neys [who had been on staff] so he could hand out con­tracts to his donors and friends.”

Balderas, for ex­am­ple, has been sharply crit­i­cized for hir­ing the Al­bu­querque-based law firm of Robles, Rael & Anaya, where he used to work, to rep­re­sent the state in high-stakes wa­ter rights lit­i­ga­tion be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That’s a case that has bil­lions of dol­lars of im­pli­ca­tions for New Mex­ico, and in­stead of send­ing one of the best and bright­est wa­ter lawyers the state has, we went out and found some­body who had no ex­pe­ri­ence,” Dunn said. “We did so, I believe, be­cause Hec­tor wanted to do a fa­vor for that law firm.”

Balderas, 45, brushed off the crit­i­cism by his op­po­nents, in­clud­ing the hir­ing of Robles, Rael & Anaya.

“One of the rea­sons I’m us­ing a lo­cal, His­panic-owned firm is be­cause their ori­gins come from ru­ral New Mex­ico, so I thought it was very im­por­tant to use New Mex­ico firms who un­der­stand the cul­ture and have a new sense of ur­gency,” he said.

Balderas, who has a cam­paign war chest of nearly $1 mil­lion, sig­nif­i­cantly more than ei­ther of his op­po­nents, de­fended the dona­tions he re­ceived from firms that have rep­re­sented the state in cases in­volv­ing de­fec­tive prod­ucts and deceptive mar­ket­ing.

“These are pen­nies com­pared to what cor­po­ra­tions pay con­gress­men and other AGs to not bring lit­i­ga­tion,” he said.

He later added, “There is ab­so­lutely no con­flict be­cause we fo­cus on con­sumer re­cov­er­ies and fol­low all pro­cure­ment and cam­paign dis­clo­sure rules.”

Co­in­ci­den­tally, many of the firms that have rep­re­sented New Mex­ico in law­suits and then do­nated to his cam­paign are from out of state.

Balderas, who was con­sid­er­ing run­ning for gov­er­nor this year, said he doesn’t have any po­lit­i­cal aspirations or goals “other than to just ag­gres­sively hit the ground run­ning again on a sec­ond term.” He said he de­cided against run­ning for gov­er­nor be­cause he loves his job as at­tor­ney gen­eral and wants to con­tinue his work on pro­tect­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

“And I thought that Michelle and I would bring an amaz­ing punch and coun­ter­punch,” he said, re­fer­ring to Lu­jan Gr­isham.

Balderas scoffed at the idea that he’s only out for him­self, as al­leged by his two op­po­nents.

“I never re­ally knew I would as­cend the way I did,” said Balderas, a Wagon Mound na­tive who served one term as state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and two as state au­di­tor be­fore be­com­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“Vot­ers put me in these high po­si­tions,” he said. “… I started off build­ing wa­ter sys­tems as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and [Hen­dricks and Dunn] want to be AG right out of the city of Al­bu­querque.”

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