This is the story of the rise and fall … and rise and fall … and rise and fall again of Tommy Rodella.
Rodella, Rio Arriba County sheriff and the husband of state Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, is no stranger to controversy in the bewildering world of Rio Arriba politics. At least twice in recent years, he’s faced accusations of abusing power in public office and has bounced back to win elections. But his arrest Friday on five felony counts accusing him of civil rights violations might be more difficult to overcome.
Rodella was arrested by the FBI and charged with violating the civil rights of a man during a March traffic altercation and threatening the man with a gun. He’s facing up to 37 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance Friday.
Former Española mayor Joe Maestas, who now is a Santa Fe city councilor, said in the past it was a mistake to count the Rodellas out in Rio Arriba politics. “The Rodellas have become permanent fixtures,” he said. “I think voters in Northern New Mexico are very forgiving. They’re steady and consistent. But this development could change that. There are folks who think a line has been crossed.”
“I don’t think the indictment would impact Debbie,” Maestas said. “But if he’s convicted, it could erode her support.”
Debbie Rodella, who is chairwoman of the House Business and Industry Committee, has not faced an election opponent since 2006.
Rio Arriba County Manager Tomas Campos said Friday he’ll ask Rodella to resign. But Rodella’s lawyer, Robert Gorence, said the sheriff doesn’t plan to resign because it would give the impression he did something wrong.
Rodella couldn’t be reached for comment.
Rodella’s son, Tommy Rodella Jr., also was arrested and charged in the incident and pleaded not guilty.
Campos said the Rodella arrest “leaves a black mark on the entire county.”
Some believe Tommy Rodella’s luck began running out in June when he lost his re-election bid to James Luján, a former sheriff’s deputy, in the Democratic primary. The next day, the FBI searched Rodella’s home for evidence related to the March traffic incident.
Luján, who faces no opposition in the general election, declined to comment for this story. He had lost to Rodella in the 2010 election and was fired by Rodella in 2012. Luján filed a wrongful termination suit and won a settlement of $102,500 earlier this year.
In May 2010, days before he won the Democratic primary that assured his election as sheriff, a Chimayó woman who asked not to be identified told The New Mexican, “Tommy will win, but the question is how long will it take before he’s caught doing something again.”
A career of controversy
Rodella served 13 years with the New Mexico State Police as a sergeant and investigator. He retired in 1996 after being injured on the job.
His career with the state police sometimes was controversial. The Rio Grande Sun through the years has run stories documenting an internal affairs investigation that concluded he had used his position as an officer to fix traffic tickets to help his wife’s 1992 legislative race. The Sun also reported he was arrested and fined by Jicarilla Apache Nation game and fish officers for shooting at a decoy deer from a vehicle.
Later, in March 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Rodella to replace retired Rio Arriba Magistrate Judge Tony Martinez. At the time, Richardson issued a statement saying, “Thomas Rodella is motivated, has sound knowledge of the law and deep roots in northern New Mexico. I am confident that he will perform his duties with the utmost respect for the judicial system and his community.”
But any fondness between Richardson and Rodella was short-lived.
Rodella was involved in a scandal over a case in which he had driven from Española to the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla to free an acquaintance suspected of drunken driving on the Fourth of July. Richardson, who had made the fight against DWI a top priority, was embarrassed. After the story hit the news, Rodella was called into a meeting with Richardson — reportedly a heated encounter — and the Governor’s Office announced Rodella had resigned. Richardson said he asked Rodella to step down, but Rodella always has insisted he wasn’t forced out.
Rodella ran for the vacant magistrate seat. He won the Democratic primary with 24 percent of the votes in a six-way race. He had 231 votes more than his nearest rival.
Things didn’t get easier for Rodella after he became judge again.
The state Judicial Standards Commission investigated him and in 2008 said he was guilty of misconduct in three cases, including the 2005 drunken-driving case. The commission recommended his removal from office.
When the state Supreme Court took up the Rodella removal, most of the questions from justices were about a 2007 domestic violence case in which Rodella was accused of improperly telling the alleged victim that she didn’t have to show up in court to testify against her husband.
During the commission’s investigation, Rodella and his lawyers strongly implied that the charges against Rodella were politically motivated because Richardson wanted him out of office.
The court ruled that Rodella should be removed from office and that he should not be allowed to run for judicial office again.
But that ruling did not prevent him from running for sheriff. In the 2010 Democratic primary, Rodella won about 25 percent of the vote. Once again, a large field — this time seven candidates including Luján — split the vote.
A helping hand
How did Rodella make these political comebacks after being thrown off the bench?
One person involved in the Rio Arriba Democratic Party — who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from Debbie Rodella — said it’s simple math. Tommy Rodella won in 2006 and 2010 with 24 percent and 25 percent of the vote in fields of six and seven candidates.
Maestas, however, thinks it’s more complex than that.
“In Northern New Mexico, there are a lot of traditional people,” he said. “When an elected official helps someone, people appreciate it.” And that appreciation is shared among those in the family, which translates into votes, he said.
Indeed, some of the instances that got Tommy Rodella in trouble were cases in which he was trying to help a constituent. The drunken driver whose ticket he fixed in 2005 is an example. In the 2007 domestic violence case, he told the woman she didn’t have to testify only after she’d told him she was having second thoughts about taking the witness stand.
And in another matter, which was investigated by the FBI last year, Rodella had set up a scholarship fund in which he accepted donations from motorists in lieu of traffic fines. The fund was established to provide financial aid to college students from Rio Arriba County who pursue degrees in law-enforcement fields, county records showed. No charges were filed in that case.
Referring to Sheriff Rodella’s habit of trying to help people, Maestas said, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”