ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Lawyers for the indicted Rio Arriba Country sheriff are accusing the federal prosecutor of misconduct, saying he has a vendetta against their client and threatened him with arrest during a heated May meeting over U.S. Forest Service patrols in northern New Mexico.
Citing an ongoing dispute on the issue, attorneys for Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella sent U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez a letter Tuesday saying the charges were filed in bad faith and are malicious and “vexatious.”
Rodella and his son were indicted last week for conspiracy to violate a motorist’s civil rights during an off-duty traffic stop in March.
The indictment says the men engaged “in a high-speed pursuit and unreasonable seizure” of the driver, identified in the court papers only as M.T. The sheriff was not in uniform when he jumped out of his Jeep SUV armed with a silver revolver, court papers said.
The driver was dragged from his car and thrown into the dirt, according to the papers.
But in the letter, Rodella’s lawyers said the indictment came after a heated meeting between Martinez and Rodella, who declined to follow Martinez’s demand in the U.S. Forest Service dispute.
“Multiple officials witnessed and will testify to your arrogant and vitriolic behavior during the meeting and what appeared to be your extreme hostility to Sheriff Rodella because he refused to your unreasonable demands,” the letter said.
The northern New Mexico sheriff, who has had brushes with scandal throughout his career, has been in a long dispute with the U.S. Forest Service for what he deems as federal overreach over land use on historical Hispanic land grants.
In a letter to various media outlets, former Rio Arriba County Commissioner Felipe Martinez said the charges against Rodella “reek of a political vendetta” and questioned why the U.S. Attorney’s Office hasn’t been more aggressive in pursuing indictments against other New Mexico officers involved in recent high-profile shootings.
Rodella’s lawyers also Tuesday have filed a Hyde Amendment claim and are demanding that Martinez drop the indictment.
The Hyde Amendment lets federal courts award attorneys’ fees and expenses to defendants who prove misconduct by federal prosecutors.
“Because the Hyde Amendment provides a remedy only after the conclusion of a prosecution where the defendant prevails, any response to the allegations in the defendants’ notice would be premature,” said Elizabeth Martinez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Accordingly, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declines to comment on the allegations at this time, and will await the verdict of the jury when the case goes to trial on September 15, 2014.”
Despite the indictment, his recent loss of re-election and calls to resign, Rodella returned to work this week.
FBI agents raided Rodella’s home in June just hours after he lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff to challenger James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy Rodella had fired.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.