Ellis Garcia, Questa school board member, insisted he would not step down, despite revelations of a past felony and ill health.
“No, I’m not withdrawing. I could die next week, or tomorrow,” said Questa school board member Ellis Garcia in an Oct. 15 phone interview with the Taos News. “My kidneys are done. I’m going to live what life I have left to the fullest.”
Garcia was diagnosed with renal failure in June of this year. He’s undergone dialysis three times a week since then and is on a waiting list for a kidney transplant.
Garcia admitted, in response to a question at the Oct. 9 Questa school board candidates’ forum, that he has a 1992 felony conviction in Taos County for conspiracy to commit arson. Garcia denied that he’d broken any law since then, but another police record has surfaced from 1995: he was charged with two counts each of criminal sexual penetration and criminal sexual contact with a minor.
That case, however, was dismissed without prejudice after prosecutors failed to notify Garcia of a target date for a grand jury hearing.
According to New Mexico statutes though, Garcia, who was appointed to the board in 2017 and is now running to retain his seat, is not eligible to serve.
The law states “a person who has been convicted of a felony shall not be permitted to hold an office of public trust for the state, a county, a municipality or a district, unless the person has presented the governor with a certificate verifying the completion of the sentence and been granted a pardon or certificate by the governor restoring the person’s full rights of citizenship.”
Ellis did not provide a letter of pardon or certificate from the governor regarding his felony conviction and eligibility to serve.
Costilla residents in particular are asking whether this nullifies actions approved by the board during Garcia’s tenure, such as the recent Sept. 17 decision to permanently close their elementary school, the tiny but high-performing Río Costilla Southwest Academy of Learning. The motion was approved 3-2 by a majority that included Garcia.
In response to an email query to the secretary of state’s office, communications director Alex Curtas said, “There are certain circumstances where a convicted felon may hold a public office in New Mexico if he/she meets the conditions of a qualified elector. The Office of the Secretary of State cannot say whether or not Mr. Garcia is ineligible to serve without knowing all of the facts surrounding his alleged conviction and the sentence which may have been imposed.
“All candidates who file for office are required to affirm to the filing officer, which in this case is the county clerk, that they ‘will be eligible and legally qualified to hold this office at the beginning of its term.’”
According to Curtas, the affidavit is made under oath and any false statements made on it would be a felony.
Curtas added that under the election code, anyone questioning a candidate’s qualifications “must file a complaint in the district court of the county where either party resides.”
A copy of Garcia’s candidate registration document from the Taos County Clerk’s Office shows that he was only required to affirm his residence in the Questa district. The form doesn’t ask whether he had ever been convicted of a felony.
Bribery allegations still in play
At the start of Tuesday night’s (Oct. 15) Questa school board meeting, board member Jose Lovato moved to table the meeting, citing an Oct. 10 Taos News article that raised these issues: Is Garcia currently serving on the board illegally and, if so, doesn’t this nullify any action taken by the board that involves a majority that includes Garcia?
Lovato said that he had emailed Samantha Adams, the board’s legal counsel, to advise her of these issues and pass along community members’ concerns over Garcia’s continued service on the board. Lovato said he’d copied the other board members on the email, though board president Daryl Ortega denied receiving it. Ortega and the other two members who predictably vote with him, Garcia and Mathew Ortega, voted down Lovato’s motion, and the meeting proceeded.
One item on the agenda was to vote on whether to distribute a confidential investigative report commissioned by the board to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office, the Public Education Department and the state Auditor’s Office. That motion passed.
This report, submitted by Martin Private Investigations of Albuquerque, detailed allegations made by Garcia in August that board member Tammy Jaramillo; her husband, Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo; and former board president Bernie Torres had attempted to bribe him to vote against closing the Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy.
Garcia provided a copy of the report to Taos News and KOB-TV4.
Bribery allegations denied
According to the private investigator’s report, Garcia alleged that Tammy and Brent Jaramillo and Bernie Torres had offered him financial assistance with his medical bills, as well as possible political favors, in exchange for his vote on the Río Costilla school.
In an Oct. 14 interview, both Brent and Tammy Jaramillo denied ever offering Garcia any kind of assistance in exchange for his vote. Both said they had given him two get-well cards following his treatments for renal failure, one containing $50 and the other containing $35. Tammy said she had offered to help Garcia organize fundraisers, including a bake sale and raffle, and did help him set up a GoFundMe site where online viewers could submit contributions.
“He [Garcia] connected a bunch of dots that simply weren’t there,” said Brent Jaramillo. “I had very brief contact with him, which he greatly exaggerated in the report. I texted him a couple of times to find out when he’d be home and then dropped off a get-well card with the money it.”
Torres, when asked in an Oct. 14 interview with the Taos News if he’d ever said anything to Garcia that could have been construed as an offer of assistance in exchange for his vote, said, “Absolutely not!”
Torres explained that when Brent Jaramillo was receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer, he had helped him out with a contribution of $150 toward his medical expenses. As a member of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative’s board, Torres said he has a discretionary account from which he can draw funds to help community members wherever he sees a need.
Afterward, he said, Tammy Jaramillo had mentioned to him that Garcia was also ill and had numerous bills. She proposed that she split the money he’d given them with Garcia. Torres hadn’t known that Garcia was sick but told Tammy, “No, don’t even think about it. I’ll help him out with a separate contribution.”
“I called Ellis, we talked about his medical issues,” said Torres. “I said I wanted to help him. I never said anything about giving him money in exchange for his vote. I tried to get in touch to see when I could drop off a contribution, but he didn’t respond to my texts, so we never connected and I didn’t actually give him the money.”
According to the investigator’s report, Garcia said Torres offered him money either not to show up for a board meeting, thereby preventing a vote on the Río Costilla school closure, or to go and vote to keep the school open.
Torres acknowledged that he had tried on several occasions to convince Garcia, as the potential swing vote on the board, to support keeping Río Costilla open. “A lot of us did,” Torres said. “But I never offered him anything in return. I’m not the kind of guy who operates like that.”
In an Oct. 15 phone interview with the Taos News, Garcia re-affirmed his allegations that both Torres and the Jaramillos had offered him money and favors in exchange for his vote.
Garcia also reconfirmed that he’d been convicted in Taos County of conspiracy to commit arson shortly after his discharge from the Army in 1992. He also acknowledged that he’d been charged in Taos County in September 1995 with criminal sexual penetration and criminal sexual contact with a minor.
When asked later that day in an email whether he denied guilt in relation to these charges, Garcia replied, “Deny. That’s why I wanted to go to trial,” referring to his plea of not guilty. He also confirmed that the case never went to trial.
Board moves forward with superintendent hire
Despite the questionable legitimacy of such action, board president Ortega pressed ahead with plans to hire a new superintendent. Board members Lovato and Jaramillo commented that attempting to install a new superintendent before the upcoming Nov. 5 board election, especially in light of the Garcia issue, was highly questionable.
They both voted against proceeding with it, but the predictable majority of Ortega, Garcia and Ortega voted to approve. The board president polled members’ availability, settling on Saturday (Oct. 19) as the day they would meet to review candidates’ credentials. Cathy Gallegos, the district’s interim superintendent and Questa High School principal, reported that “more than 10” candidates had submitted for the position.
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