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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Mudslinging in New Mexico

Gubernatorial candidates launch Willie Horton-style ads, each accusing the other of enabling sex offenders to strike again.


The November election is several months away, but the mudslinging is in full swing in the New Mexico governor’s race. Republican Susana Martinez and Democrat Diane Denish both have launched ads that try to link the other to convicted or accused sex offenders.

  • Martinez’s ad holds Denish, the state’s lieutenant governor, responsible for a policy in the Children, Youth and Families Department that allowed juvenile illegal immigrants to stay in the United States — and it claims that policy allowed an accused child molester to remain here. Denish did once promise to "review everything" in this department, and she says she never learned of the illegal immigrant directive. But Denish isn’t the one who instituted this policy. Plus, it was put into practice after the accused child molester came to the attention of this department.
  • Denish’s ad blames Martinez, a district attorney, for agreeing to plea bargains that kept two school employees accused of sex crimes from having to register as sex offenders. But the fact is Martinez won convictions in both cases, even though the parents of victims in both cases were reluctant to have their daughters testify.


Politicians often try to paint their opponents as soft on crime, and that tactic is certainly popular in the New Mexico governor’s race — an election that pits the state’s lieutenant governor against a district attorney. We recently debunked Democrat and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s attempt to distort Republican Susana Martinez’s record as DA on murder convictions and drunk driving cases. Each campaign is also trying to connect the other to sex offenders.

The early, ugly nature of the campaign led a reporter with the Santa Fe New Mexican to quip that Willie Horton would be brought in to referee the ad war. Horton, convicted as an accomplice to murder, was the subject of an infamous 1988 ad by an independent group, attacking Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat. There are several similarities with this case; the Horton ad said that Dukakis "opposes the death penalty," and with racial overtones implied his policies had led to recidivism of violent crime.

‘Sanctuary’ for Child Molesters?

Martinez’s ad claims Denish was at least partly responsible for a policy of not reporting juvenile illegal immigrants to federal immigration authorities — a policy that the ad says allowed one man, who recently was arrested for sexual assault of a child, to stay in the U.S. But holding Denish responsible for the policy is a stretch — and it’s not clear that this man was even affected by it.

[TET ]

Susana Martinez 2010 Ad: "Excuses"

Narrator: Diane Denish. False ads to hide the truth. Denish helped abolish the death penalty. Even for cop killers.

It gets worse. A department in Denish’s cabinet gave sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez. Denish promised to review their policies. But the sanctuary policy stayed. So did Juan Gonzalez. And he just attacked another child. Now Denish claims she knew nothing. After promising to review everything. Diane Denish, Richardon’s loyal soldier. More of the same excuses. [/TET]

First, the ad truthfully claims: “Denish helped abolish the death penalty. Even for cop killers.” Denish did support a repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico and urged Gov. Bill Richardson to sign a bill into law that replaced capital punishment with a sentence of life in prison without parole. Richardson did so in March 2009, making New Mexico the 15th state to abolish the death penalty.

Then the ad gets into murky matters. It says that “a department in Denish’s cabinet gave sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez.” In 2005, Gonzalez, an illegal immigrant and a juvenile, was accused of sexually molesting two children. The “department” in question – the Children, Youth and Families Department – didn’t report him to the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, even though a state regulation said the department must do so.

The Children, Youth and Families Department is part of what’s called the “Children’s Cabinet,” and Denish is the cabinet chair. But this cabinet also includes the governor and the heads of 10 other state departments, including the secretaries of health, labor, finance and administration, public education, corrections, and economic development. Denish’s campaign says the role of this cabinet isn’t to set internal policies for the various departments. And the statute for the cabinet outlines big-picture duties, saying the group will make recommendations for “a coordinated system to maximize outcomes” for children in the state.

Romaine Serna, spokeswoman for CYFD, told us Denish, as cabinet chair, isn’t involved in supervising CYFD. The cabinet, she says, "advises, recommends, but there is no direct supervisory relationship at all."

There’s no evidence that Denish knew anything about Gonzalez, or that she would have played any day-to-day role in what actions CYFD took when encountering illegal immigrants.

The Martinez ad then refers to a “sanctuary policy” in the CYFD, but the policy in question wasn’t in effect until a year after Gonzalez was accused in 2005 of sex crimes. In 2006, the secretary of the department, Mary-Dale Bolson, suspended the regulation that had said the department must tell ICE about any illegal immigrants. So, Gonzalez wasn’t reported to ICE, but that wasn’t because of any kind of "sanctuary policy." That policy came about later. The official policy at the time called for CYFD staffers to report him.

Gonzalez was judged not competent to stand trial in 2005. Serna told us that because the case never went to trial and Gonzalez was never on probation or adjudicated, the department had only "preliminary superficial interaction with him." She also told us that she wasn’t certain whether or not CYFD called ICE about Gonzalez, but ICE officials have said they were not notified.

In May of this year, he surfaced again, when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl. He’s now 20, and still in the country illegally. This news prompted Gov. Richardson to partly reinstate the former CYFD policy, calling for the department to alert ICE of any juveniles who are accused of violent crimes.

What could Denish have done about this? The ad says that “Denish promised to review [CYFD’s] policies. But the sanctuary policy stayed. So did Juan Gonzalez.” True, Denish did say she would “review everything, from budget to structure to the management team,” in 2006, when Bolson was leaving the department. But as we said, Gonzalez came under the department’s purview before Bolson told staffers not to report illegal immigrants. Even if Denish had learned about Bolson’s directive – she says she didn’t know about it – it’s unclear whether any subsequent action would have affected Gonzalez or other earlier cases in the department.

Denish campaign spokesman Chris Cervini sent us the campaign’s press release responding to these charges, which says: “Diane had no involvement or knowledge of the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) policy that directed staff to stop notifying ICE officials when a child was found to be in the country illegally. Diane chairs the Children’s cabinet, which does not have oversight over CYFD.”

As for Denish’s review of CYFD, her campaign says this was done “primarily to identify a new Cabinet Secretary and appropriate leadership personnel for the Department in the wake of the resignation of the prior secretary and members of her leadership team. This policy was not reviewed at that time.”

We can’t say whether Denish’s review should have uncovered this policy — or whether a change in policy would have made a difference in Gonzalez’s case. But we can say that Martinez’s ad makes a weak attempt at connecting Denish to this incident.

More Sex Offenders

The Denish ad, “Safe,” accuses Martinez of being soft on sex offenders as a district attorney. The ad, which first aired June 14, shows a pre-teen girl – seemingly about 9 years old – going down a playground slide in slow-motion, while ominous music plays in the background and an announcer discusses two sex crime cases. It ends with an empty swing, as the announcer says: “Today we don’t know where these sex offenders are lurking, because Susana Martinez didn’t do her job.” But Martinez did win convictions in both cases. Whether she should have — or could have — won convictions on other charges is something we can’t know, and neither can Denish.

[TET ]

Committee to Elect Diane D. Denish Ad: "Safe"

Narrator: If you think that your children are safe because the Sex Offender Registry lets you know if predators are in your neighborhood or working at your school. But check again. When a New Mexico high school janitor and coach were both charged with sexual contact with students, District Attorney Susana Martinez cut deals and allowed these child predators to avoid publicly registering as sex offenders. Today we don’t know where these sex offenders are lurking. Because Susana Martinez didn’t do her job.


The ad highlights the cases of two high school employees (a coach and a janitor) who were accused of sex crimes involving high school students, ages 15 to 16. It criticizes Martinez for accepting plea deals that reduced the charges against both men. As a result, neither was required to register as a sex offender. “When a New Mexico High School janitor and coach were both charged with sexual contact with students, District Attorney Susana Martinez cut deals and allowed these child predators to avoid publicly registering as sex offenders,” the ad says. True enough, but here are the facts of the cases:

  • Hector Montes was indicted Nov. 23, 2005, on one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor, online criminal records show. (It’s case number D-307-CR-200501498.) The Albuquerque Journal described the incident in this Nov. 25, 2005, article: “On Nov. 12, police arrested 22-year-old custodian Hector Montes on a charge of criminal sexual contact of a minor after an administrator caught Montes with a 15-year-old female student in an office at the school. Police said Montes admitted kissing and fondling the girl, who acknowledged having flirted with the custodian.” Montes pleaded guilty to one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to one year and three months in prison, although he served 119 days in county jail, records show.
  • Shawn Bohannon was indicted May 19, 2005, on 29 counts of criminal sexual penetration of a minor, 12 counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor, one count of child abuse, two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and one count of false imprisonment, according to grand jury indictments provided by the Denish campaign that can be found here and here. The Albuquerque Journal described the incidents in a June 1, 2006, article: “Bohannon was accused of having sexual relations with two girls from late 2002 until February 2004 when the girls worked as trainers for the Hatch Valley football team.” All the rape charges were dismissed by the prosecutor’s office and Bohannon pleaded guilty to charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and child abuse. That article said Bohannon was sentenced to five years probation and received a suspended sentence of 24 years in prison.

If convicted of the original charges, Montes and Bohannon would have been required to register as sex offenders. The question to ask: Do we have enough information to blame Martinez for the plea agreements?

In the Bohannon case, the Martinez campaign provided court transcripts that showed the lawyers and family members of the victims agreed to the plea bargain. In an audio tape provided by the Martinez campaign, a mother of one of the victims told the judge: "I am very thankful for this plea agreement because I did not want to see her have to go through all … relive all of this stuff again. She’s kind of gotten past it. She just graduated. Life’s good again, you know." The Albuquerque Journal article about the sentencing provided an additional reason for the plea agreement: "[Chief Deputy District Attorney Susan] Riedel said Bohannon’s plea agreement was acceptable because difficulties in pinning down exact dates and locations of some of the alleged incidents raised concerns about gaining convictions on the original charges at trial.”

In the Montes case, Joe Novak — the father of the victim — issued a statement on June 23 through the Martinez campaign that said the plea agreement "was in my daughter’s best interest." The full statement reads as follows:

Novak, June 23: My daughter was the victim in the Montes case. I was contacted yesterday by the Denish campaign and asked to say that I felt I was done wrong by the Dona Ana County DA’s office. I told the Denish campaign that is not true and that the prosecutor did what was in the best interest of my daughter. In that case, I had moved my daughter to Nevada to a rehabilitation school to help her recover from her issues. I did not want to take her back to New Mexico and drag her through a trial and communicated that to the DA’s office when we discussed how to proceed. The plea agreement was in my daughter’s best interest.

Sex crimes are emotionally charged cases that in many instances are difficult for outside observers to fully appreciate or understand. New Hampshire defense attorney Michael Iacopino, who chaired the Sex Offender Policy Task Force of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told us: "The ad is branding these two men as predators. I can’t say categorically that they are not dangerous. Some of them are." But, he said, you need to know more information about each case than is available to voters in a 30-second ad.

We agree and, for that reason, believe that the Denish campaign did not prove that Martinez "didn’t do her job."

— by Lori Robertson and Eugene Kiely


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