The top prosecutors in Taos are under investigation for professional misconduct related to purported abuses of subpoena power.
Charges were filed Wednesday with the Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court alleging a “pattern of misconduct” by 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos and Deputy District Attorney Emilio Chávez.
The allegations stem from an investigation into a robbery at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos on April 10, 2013.
Chávez issued several subpoenas for telephone records while pursuing leads in the case.
The subpoenas were not approved by a judge or grand jury, however. Following objections from attorneys representing suspects in the robbery, a judge ruled the subpoenas “were not in the form approved by the Supreme Court” and without legal basis.
In tossing the cases Chávez had built with the subpoenas, 8th Judicial District Court Judge John Paternoster wrote that it was “objectively unreasonable for the prosecutor to believe that his conduct was lawful.”
The District Attorney’s Office is appealing that decision.
However, the charges filed against the prosecutors Wednesday raise new questions about conduct at the District Attorney’s Office.
The five counts against Gallegos allege he violated 12 separate rules adopted by the New Mexico Supreme Court to regulate the conduct of lawyers across the state.
The four counts against Chávez allege he violated six such rules.
Gallegos and Chávez have 25 days to file written responses to the charges. The allegations will likely lead to a disciplinary hearing before a three-person panel composed of two attorneys and one layperson. If the allegations against Chávez and Gallegos are considered valid, their cases could be referred by another panel of disciplinary board members to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The state’s highest justices could then decide to reprimand the prosecutors or even suspend their licenses to practice law.
Gallegos and Chávez declined to comment for this story.
The conduct for which Judge Paternoster reprimanded the prosecutors does not appear to be limited to subpoenas related to the Kit Carson robbery case.
The charges list a slew of dubious subpoenas written by Chávez and another prosecutor, Robyn Simms, in 2013.
Subpoenas issued without the approval of a judge or grand jury were used to gather not only telephone records but also to obtain documents from the Children, Youth and Families Department as well as medical files.
The Taos News reviewed several such subpoenas earlier this year and found one that demanded its recipients keep secret the document’s very existence.
The subpoenas were cited in charging Chávez with using methods to obtain evidence that violated the legal rights of a third person and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Chávez also is charged with unlawfully obstructing another party’s access to evidence, failing to provide competent representation to a client, failing to obey the rules of a tribunal and engaging in conduct disruptive to the tribunal.
As district attorney, Gallegos is accused of “having knowledge of specific misconduct and ratifying that conduct and having known of the conduct at a time when its consequences could have been avoided or mitigated but failed to take remedial action.”
Gallegos also is charged with having managerial authority over a lawyer and failing to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the subordinate lawyer conformed to the Rules of Professional Conduct, failing to provide competent representation to a client, unlawfully obstructing another party’s access to evidence, failing to obey the rules of a tribunal, engaging in conduct disruptive to the tribunal, using methods to obtain evidence that violate the legal rights of a third person and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Simms, who most recently worked at the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Raton, was not charged. She resigned earlier this year, and efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.
The charges levied this week follow an investigation by Disciplinary Board staff. Such investigations are typically spurred by a complaint filed with the board. The Disciplinary Board, which is an agency of the New Mexico Supreme Court, receives approximately 700 complaints against attorneys each year.
Approximately one-fifth of such complaints result in some form of disciplinary action, which does not always include formal charges.
Gallegos was elected district attorney in 2000.
The 8th Judicial District comprises Taos, Colfax and Union counties.
This story is from The Taos News, a sister paper of The Santa Fe New Mexican.