Federal agents have seized two laptop computers from the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and intend to search them for evidence showing that the former chief of what was once an elite state urban search-and-rescue team, along with another worker, completed an online training program for several response team members so they could achieve federal certification, a U.S. District Court affidavit says.
The move marks a new development in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigation launched in September 2015 into allegations that the team, known as New Mexico Task Force 1, had falsified training certificates to meet requirements under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the same time, FEMA told state officials it was removing the team from its national disaster response system and pulling the team’s funding.
Dante Halleck, a former training manager with New Mexico Task Force 1, told a U.S. Homeland Security agent in a sworn statement in February that former Chief Gregory Lee and an administrative assistant, Darlene Torres, had used their work laptops to take the online federal training courses for various members, according to the search warrant application filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
No charges have been filed in the case, but the affidavit says Special Agent Robert Vargas is investigating allegations of wire fraud and false statements.
The new search comes as the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, plagued by problems since it became a department in 2007, continues to struggle with financial management, delays in allocating emergency assistance and other issues. State Auditor Tim Keller announced in November that he had recommended to Gov. Susana Martinez that she put a separate agency in charge of overseeing the department’s “critical financial functions.”
In February, Keller’s office listed the agency among more than a dozen entities that had failed to file required annual audits.
According to Vargas’ affidavit, Torres left the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in December 2015, and Lee resigned in August 2016. Both turned over their laptops to an information technology systems official. While Lee’s was wiped clean and assigned to another employee, the affidavit says, Torres’ has not been modified.
Vargas says in the affidavit that he believes he can recover key information from Lee’s computer using forensic tools.
Federal agents seized both laptops from the state department’s Santa Fe office March 30.
Lee, according to his online LinkedIn profile, is now the chief of the Pampa Fire Department in Texas. He didn’t return a message from The New Mexican seeking comment.
No contact information for Torres could be found.
Halleck, who quit the task force in September 2015, told The New Mexican in January 2016 that he had alerted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, as well as state officials, about mismanagement of the task force.
He quit under pressure, he said. “It came down to ‘quit or we are going to fire you,’ ” Halleck said. “I was definitely under pressure, and my job was threatened.”
But he said he still was made a scapegoat for problems with the task force that date back long before he joined in October 2013.
Halleck’s laptop was confiscated by federal agents last year and is now being analyzed, Vargas’ affidavit says. FEMA also collected all of the fake certificates Halleck was accused of creating.
An unnamed source told an investigator that Halleck had printed out “numerous fraudulent training certificates” for ethics courses, fitness tests, hazardous materials tests and respiratory training, according to a statement of probable cause filed in the federal court more than a year ago.
New Mexico Task Force 1, assembled in 1991, had been one of 28 highly skilled teams across the nation designed to respond within hours, at FEMA’s call, to any type of disaster in the country.
It was placed under the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management when lawmakers started the agency in 2007 by consolidating two existing departments.
In a September 2015 letter to the state, FEMA said the elite team hadn’t been fully operational since 2007. Other teams had tried on numerous occasions over the years to help New Mexico Task Force 1 resolve its problems, the letter said, but the task force continually failed to meet operational standards and struggled with financial management and proper reporting of expenses.
The state appealed, but the federal government was unmoved.
State officials at the time said they were in the process of turning the team over to the city of Albuquerque. It’s unclear whether the transition was completed. The city’s website says some members of its Heavy Technical Rescue Task Force are also members of New Mexico Task Force 1. But FEMA no longer lists the team among those in its National Urban Search and Rescue Response System.
A Facebook page for the team says it is located at the Albuquerque International Sunport, but the page is otherwise blank.
Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.