A Rio Arriba County man has filed a petition in the state’s First Judicial District alleging fraudulent practices by a regional trash-collection organization and seeking a grand jury investigation.
Antonio De Vargas, 72, said he believes a grand jury probe, rather than a District Attorney’s Office investigation, into the North Central Solid Waste Authority is necessary because he sees a conflict of interest for District Attorney Marco Serna, who is running for the state’s 3rd Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
Serna’s effort to drum up voter support in Rio Arriba County could affect an investigation, De Vargas said.
The North Central Solid Waste Authority was formed in 2004 in a joint effort by the governments of Rio Arriba County, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara Pueblo and the city of Española to provide trash- and recycling-collection services for residents. Its board is made up of government officials from each entity.
De Vargas, who collected 527 signatures on the petition, is accusing the authority of misappropriating of public money, billing customers for services not rendered and fraud.
His main complaints, De Vargas said, is that the authority has inconsistent practices for managing liens and questionable expenses in its audit and has billed customers after they have died or moved out of the county.
“The people of Rio Arriba County have a lot of problems with the waste authority, but we don’t have subpoena powers, so we have to exercise our constitutional right to a grand jury,” De Vargas said.
“The county commissioners and City Council have not responded to our requests for dialogue,” he added.
Solid Waste Authority officials did not respond to emails seeking comment Wednesday.
Under the New Mexico Constitution, a petitioner must collect signatures of at least 2 percent of registered voters in a county for a judge to empanel a grand jury. According to the Rio Arriba County Clerk’s Office, there are about 25,000 registered voters in the county, which means De Vargas’ petition has plenty of signatures — as long as the signatures are valid.
He began collecting signatures from Rio Arriba voters in April, De Vargas said.
In a letter to judges in the First Judicial District, De Vargas said he hopes a grand jury will be assisted by the state Attorney General’s Office rather than the District Attorney’s Office because of possible conflicts created by Serna’s congressional campaign.
Even if the petition does not result in a grand jury investigation, De Vargas said, he hopes it will be an impetus for change.
“In a county where winning and losing an election often comes down to fewer than 100 votes, we’re hoping this will get people to listen,” De Vargas said. “We’ve got over 500 people on our side. Our gamble is that will make them listen.”