Corrections Dept. investigates why probation officer’s car was left overnight at SF school
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The New Mexico Corrections Department is investigating why one of its vehicles was left unattended overnight Saturday outside St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe. The state vehicle – a four-door 2011 Chevrolet equipped with two-way radios and a prisoner cage – had been assigned to Probation Officer Melanie Martinez, the Watchdog has learned.
“That incident is currently under review,” said Corrections Department Public Information Officer Shannon McReynolds.
The state vehicle was first spotted in the parking lot late Saturday morning. St. Michael’s was hosting its annual Fiesta de San Miguel. The school’s parking lots were full, with additional vehicles spilling into parking spaces along Siringo Road. The state vehicle was parked in the high-school lot, near the school’s main entrance.
The Watchdog first learned Saturday around 3 p.m., from a source who we agreed not to identify, that the vehicle was parked at the high-school fiesta. The source suggested the state-owned car had been used for personal business. A reporter went to the school and began watching the vehicle.
As the Fiesta event concluded around 7 p.m. most other vehicles left the parking lot. The state car remained. Shortly before sundown, a reporter approached the car with a camera, taking close-up pictures of the license plate.
A woman apparently visiting the school in connection with the fiesta approached the reporter, curious about the keen interest in the vehicle. She asked if the reporter was with law enforcement, or “Hollywood.” No. About to repossess the vehicle, or maybe a private investigator? Not exactly.
The women looked more closely at the late-model Chevy, equipped with radios and a prisoner cage. She guessed again. “You’re one of those investigative reporters?”
This time, I identified myself. Good, the woman said, suggesting the situation appeared to her to be one where a state employee had used a state vehicle for personal business. “We have to pay for our gas.” the woman said.
As this reporter sat nearby watching, nobody approached the state vehicle from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Visits to the area at 11 p.m. and again before dawn found the Corrections Department car was the only vehicle that remained in the parking lot, which on the moonless night was otherwise dark due to a burned out street light.
Around 10:45 a.m., a woman who fit the description of the probation officer a tipster had described appeared near the car. A reporter saw the woman sitting on the curb, talking on a cell phone, describing the car and asking when a tow truck would arrive.
By the time this reporter parked, the woman was walking briskly away from the state car, into St. Michael’s sports fields. By the time I got out of my vehicle with a camera in hand, the woman had disappeared from view.
As this reporter returned from looking around the sports field, a Santa Fe police officer approached. The officer said a caller said it was suspicious that someone was walking near the school with a camera. Upon learning this reporter worked in an investigative capacity and was interested in a particular piece of state property, the officer had no other questions. He declined to identify who had contacted police.
A few minutes later, the Watchdog received another unprompted tip. This time, our tipster volunteered that a probation officer had told police the reason the state-owned vehicle was in the school lot was that the driver had picked it up from a shop where it had been serviced.
McReynolds said the Corrections Department is waiting to learn from Santa Fe Police any information they might have about the incident. A Santa Fe detective returned a call from the Watchdog, but so far the Watchdog has no additional information about what police might have been told concerning why the state vehicle was parked there.
The tipster who alerted the Watchdog to the location of state vehicle alleged that the same vehicle had often been used for personal business, including to transport children. The vehicle bore state license plate number 000784. The tipster was aware of Corrections Department rules that prohibit personal use of state vehicles. The Departments spokesperson confirmed that policy.
“Use of a state vehicle for personal business is prohibited,” McReynolds said.
If, as it appeared to one uninvolved bystander and as a tipster alleged, a Corrections Dept. probation officer routinely used a state car for personal business, the practice is nothing new. In April, 2010, another Watchdog investigator — again with the help of tipsters — exposed personal use of several state vehicles to ferry workers to a birthday party and a Christmas party.