It’s not exactly news when a rural county sheriff and a small-town reporter are at odds over stories that appear in the local newspaper.
But the acrimony between Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan and Rio Grande Sun writer Tabitha Clay spilled into the open last week when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a tort claim notice against the lawman — indicating it may file a lawsuit over Lujan’s office’s treatment of the journalist, which it says is a violation of her civil rights.
Lujan said Friday there is no validity to Clay’s contention — outlined in the notice — that he retaliated against her for reporting critically on his office.
“The allegations in that tort claim are really vague, and our stand is that they are not accurate at all,” Lujan’s spokesman said Friday. “And we have facts to support a different story.”
Lujan acknowledged in a phone interview that his once friendly relationship with Clay has soured in recent months. While they once shared the occasional meal and tips on area crime, he now communicates with her only through his spokesman.
“Before, she got a lot more leeway than what she has now,” Lujan said. “It’s just hard to work with someone that is just looking for ways to bash you and bash your department.
“If you were able to get information from a public official and they work really well with you, it’s something you want to cherish and not destroy,” the sheriff said. “If you abuse a puppy and abuse a puppy and abuse a puppy, after a while that puppy is not going to come to you anymore.
“If she gives me an [Inspection of Public Records Act request] we fill that [request],” he added. “But I’m not going out to dinner with her again.”
Lujan said he doesn’t know why his relationship with Clay went south but said it seems tied to a May incident, which Clay was the first to report, in which then-Deputy Jeremy Barnes was seen on video tasing a 15-year-old boy at Española Valley High School.
Barnes, who remained on active duty with the sheriff’s office until he was fired in September, has been charged with felony child abuse, aggravated battery and other crimes tied to the incident.
After the “Barnes incident,” as Lujan called it, “I put out an olive branch to her. … Then she starts going back to this Barnes thing, and I wanted no part of it so I stopped texting her.”
Clay — who said she worked in Texas and Colorado before coming to the Sun last year — said she’s just doing her job.
“What’s happening to me could just as easily be happening to any of the journalists here and around the world who shine light on things those in power would rather keep in the dark,” Clay wrote in a message Friday.
“I stand by my reporting,” she added, “I stand by what I’ve written and when I’ve made a mistake, I’ve followed up with an apology and a correction. I accurately and fairly report things that concern the public in Rio Arriba County.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico says the behavior toward Clay amounts to retaliation and a violation of her civil rights.
ACLU-NM Legal Director Leon Howard said the group contacted Clay after hearing about the strife between the reporter and the sheriff from the law firm representing the student tased by Barnes.
“Hearing about a member of the press being retaliated against for breaking a story that garnered national attention just felt blatantly unconstitutional,” Howard said Thursday. “It’s not every day we see a case like that, so we felt it was important to make sure her rights were protected.”
The ACLU’s notice outlines three specific incidents it says illustrate the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office’s unconstitutional treatment of the journalist.
• A July situation involving “conduct by officer Jeremy Barnes and Sheriff Lujan at the scene of a fatal accident.”
• A Sept. 10 incident in which Barnes and another officer were parked outside Clay’s apartment.
• A Sept. 16 incident in which deputies refused to allow Clay to bring her computer, camera and cellphone into the First Judicial District Court in Tierra Amarilla.
“Those are just blatant violations of the First Amendment,” Howard said.
Asked to speak to the allegation Clay was threatened with arrest on the scene of a fatal accident July 1, Lujan’s spokesman, Maj. Randy Sanches, said Clay drove around a roadblock and crossed police tape. Fuel, Sanchez said, was leaking from a vehicle into the road.
“She was held back not because we didn’t want her there,” Lujan said. “It was a safety issue.”
Asked about the claim that Barnes and another officer were parked outside Clay’s apartment, Lujan said it was coincidence — officers happened to be in the area in reference to a call.
“They were not outside her apartment, they were on the side,” the sheriff said. “They had no idea she lived there. I know where she lives, at the far back part of the complex. They were the on the side by La Jolla Street.”
Asked how he knows where Clay lives, Lujan replied: “I live right by there, too. We were friends. We used to work really well together, until she turned on me.”
As for the claim that one of Lujan’s deputies would not allow Clay to enter the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, Lujan said his deputy was enforcing posted rules.
“She had been caught trying to bring [a cellphone] in,” Lujan said. “That got cleared up. The judge is allowing the press to bring them in now. But he had not said anything before.”
State District Judge Jason Lidyard did not respond to a call seeking comment Friday, but reporters from The New Mexican have routinely been allowed to enter his courtroom with computers, cameras and cellphones.
The Española-based Sun published a story Thursday about Clay’s claim, saying, “Lujan also stopped providing the The Sun with the daily E911 dispatch logs six days after Clay published a story about his and other deputies failure to complete legally required training to maintain their law enforcement certifications.”
Lujan said the logs contain personal information, such as Social Security numbers, that shouldn’t be released to the media.
Clay’s tort claim notice is the second the county has received in the past two months threatening legal action against the sheriff for alleged violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.
Last month, attorneys for a Chama man sent the county a notice accusing the sheriff of harassing him for flying a Mexican flag on the Fourth of July.