Created: 05/15/2014 10:20 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella hasn't talked to the news media about it for more than a year, but now, he's breaking his silence over a controversial policy that allowed people paying traffic ticket fines to donate to a college scholarship fund instead.
It was a 4 On Your Side investigation last spring that led to the FBI seizing documents at the sheriff's office in Espanola.
First things first. The scholarship fund was real. It still exists, although dormant, in an account at the Valley National Bank in Espanola with $5,396 in it. Not one cent has gone to help any college students, including those law enforcement students at Northern New Mexico Community College that it was originally intended to help. Rodella says his efforts were sincere, but some people didn't see it that way.
"It seemed like a bribe," one man told Eyewitness News 4 in April 2013. "To me it was fishy," his wife added.
It didn't help matters when Rodella dodged our questions for days, but he says with the FBI demanding documents it wasn't time to talk then – but it is now.
"Anytime that we're educating our children it's got to be a good thing," Rodella said this week. " I fully expect that at some point we'll continue forward with this program. Our efforts were and continue to be very genuine and very sincere."
In fact, Rodella has a letter from the state Administrative Office of the Courts telling him the decision to set up the scholarship option for traffic violators is up to the sheriff, since his officers act as prosecutors in those cases.
"I respectfully leave the decision of whether to implement such a policy to Sheriff Tommy Rodella," wrote Karen Janes, director of the magistrate court division.
Rio Arriba County is nationally known for its drug problems, and Rodella insists the scholarship fund is one way to fight those problems.
"Law enforcement absolutely has to be one," Rodella said. "There's got to be rehabilitation, there's got to be counseling, there's got to be social services. But on top of all that we need to make a better effort to educate our children and that's the only thing this scholarship fund did."
Well, it did more than that. It raised a cloud of suspicion that shrouds the Sheriff's Office in Rio Arriba to this day. Rodella is in the center of a political firestorm in a county where political firestorms are a way of life. He has fierce opposition in the Democratic primary from James Lujan, a deputy he fired, and Joe Mascarenas, a lawman who once held Rodella's job. And that primary is the main event. Republicans are scarce in Rio Arriba, to put it mildly, so the winner of the Democratic race on June 3 will almost certainly be elected sheriff in November.