Created: 04/19/2013 7:47 AM
By: Gadi Schwartz, 4 On Your Side
The allegations are alarming.
Was the Rio Arriba Sheriff Tommy Rodella letting suspects out of criminal charges in exchange for $500 donations?
For three days in a row the Sheriff himself has refused repeated requests for an interview with 4 On Your Side.
In that period, several staff members confirm that donations have been accepted by the Sheriff’s office and charges have been dropped.
The scheme is said to work like this: A person is stopped for a traffic violation and sometimes even arrested. They are then told charges against them will be dropped if they make a $500 "donation" to the "Rio Arriba Sheriff's Scholarship Fund.
But the fund is not associated with the county or any legitimate court program. It still has not even been approved as a 501c3 non-profit.
In an interview on Monday, RASO Spokesperson Jake Arnold admitted that donations were being collected but claimed it was legal as long as deputies didn't ask for the contributions.
"None of the deputies solicit these?" 4OYS Investigator Gadi Schwartz asked Arnold. "No." Arnold respond. "If they do that they would be subject to discipline in this office," Arnold added.
But on Thursday night KOB aired exclusive video of a man tracked down by 4OYS through leaked internal police documents who said he was arrested and released after paying $500.
"Who was it that told you about the scholarship option?" asked Schwartz.
"Mr. Rodella," the man answered.
"Did anyone else tell you about the scholarship fund?"
The man described in detail being detained in a holding cell at the Sheriff's office. He told 4OYS after several hours Rodella himself came into the cell to see him.
"We went into a back room, a separate room and he asked me if I would like to donate the $500, I had that option and everything would be cleared up all my charges so that is the option I went with. It was either that or go to jail so of course I went with paying the $500?"
"Did you ask to donate to the scholarship option, did you know about the option?" asked Schwartz. "No, I knew nothing about it," responded the man.
"So how did you find out about it?" "Through Mr. Rodella," The man said at the time Rodella presented him with a form that listed four "charitable options."
On the top of the list was the Rio Arriba Sheriffs Scholarship Fund.
"So they told you to choose which fund?" asked Schwartz.
"To choose anyone I like but to choose that one," said the man indicating to the scholarship fund. "So that's the one I chose. It was a no-brainer. Anybody would do that if they offered that to them, who wouldn't do that instead of sitting in jail and having those charges pending against you or pay $500 and get off scot free so that’s what I did."
Rio Arriba Magistrate Judge Alex Naranjo tells 4OYS he is alarmed by what he his hearing from those pulled over by RASO.
"If somebody is being cited for driving with a revoked license, It's not up to the officer to dismiss that if he gets money for whatever funding might be," said Naranjo.
"The adjudication needs to be done in the court room and not out on the street."
4OYS has demanded to see the account information and copies of all checks and money orders made out the the Rio Arriba County Scholarship fund. Spokesperson Jake Arnold has said they are not public record.
The day after 4OYS made its request for those records, the FBI raided the office and seized the same documents.
Arnold and the Sheriff have since refused to answer any more questions from 4OYS.
On Thursday, when asked how this is not extortion or solicitation of bribery, Arnold said, "Read my lips, I have nothing more to say to you," before fleeing into a secure area of the Sheriff’s office.
A check of Arnold's employment status shows he is not employed by the county, nor does he receive any type of pay as a county contractor.
So far efforts to ascertain how Arnold has been paid since the summer have been unsuccessful.