The ongoing spat between the Albuquerque Police Department and the city’s most powerful prosecutor took another turn this week, with the state attorney general slamming a police investigation as politically motivated while also calling the prosecutor’s conduct less than sterling.
The conflict, which has rocked Albuquerque civic government, began 21 months ago, when police officers began to look into the conduct of Second Judicial Dist. Atty. Kari Brandenburg, whose 26-year-old son, Justin Koch, has been charged in a series of larcenies and burglaries. The police suspected that, in two cases, Brandenburg bribed the victims into silence.
But police didn’t present information about Brandenburg to the state attorney general until this year — after Brandenburg announced she was pursuing murder charges against Albuquerque police officers Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy.
The two were involved in the March 2014 fatal shooting of a homeless man, James Boyd, on the outskirts of town.
It is the first time Brandenburg, a longtime police supporter, has pursued murder charges against police officers involved in a fatal shooting, and there were immediate reactions from the police department and the city.
A city attorney refused to let Brandenburg’s deputies examine a crime scene, which was standard procedure, and argued that Brandenburg’s decision to file charges created a conflict of interest in assessing whether other officers’ actions were justified.
A judge agreed, and demanded that Brandenburg appoint a special prosecutor in the shooting.
Then this week, New Mexico Atty. Gen. Hector Balderas entered the fray. On Friday he announced that he was refusing to file charges against Brandenburg and publicly reprimanded the police department.
“The timing of the APD’s decision … raises questions about APD’s motivations,” Balderas wrote, “not only when deciding to when to refer the matter to the [attorney general], but also when deciding to pursue an investigation against Brandenburg in the first place.”
Balderas said a witness provided testimony against Brandenburg, but the witness wasn’t credible, part of the dearth of necessary evidence he said he needed to go to trial.
But Balderas also said the case against Brandenburg showed the appearance of impropriety, especially her failure to recuse herself quickly enough from her son’s case.
Albuquerque police provided the attorney general’s office information about Brandenburg’s actions concerning two of Koch’s alleged victims. The first incident, from July 2013, began when Victoria Baros told police that Koch stole a handgun from her house.
Brandenburg wrote Baros’ husband, Andrew, a check for $800 from Koch’s trust fund. She also said, according to the report, she wanted to keep him out of jail, “and said that if Koch was charged and convicted of a felony, his life would be over.”
The check she wrote, Balderas said, did not function as a bribe because she wasn’t paying the Baros family in an effort to keep the couple from reporting the crime.
When Andrew Baros reported the gun stolen, Brandenburg replied on Facebook, “I am glad you reported the gun stolen. You needed to do that to protect yourselves.”
A second investigation was more complicated. Koch was also accused of breaking into the home of Ryan Sena and Shane Anaya, two men the attorney general’s letter said have “credibility issues.”
Sena said Brandenburg called him from a blocked number and told him she would reimburse him if he didn’t call the police. Balderas said in the letter that Sena’s call logs didn’t show the call being made, and the only evidence against Brandenburg came from him.
“While her conduct did not rise to the level of being criminal,” Balderas wrote of Brandenburg, “her lack of disclosure and actions of personally engaging with potential witnesses and alleged victims clearly created an appearance of impropriety.”
Strife between Brandenburg, a Democrat, and Police Chief Gordon Eden, an appointee of Republican Mayor Richard J. Berry, has bubbled since she told attorneys for the officers Perez and Sandy that she planned to propose murder charges against them.
Then in April, she said at a news conference that people within the police department had related information that made her fear for her safety.
Her attorney, Peter Schoenburg, said this week’s report shows Brandenburg didn’t alter the criminal justice system to benefit her son.
“She acted as a mother,” Schoenburg said. Referring to the police inquiry into Brandenburg, he said, “There was a political agenda here. This was retaliation, and I think the attorney general’s report shows that.”
The investigation’s end won’t end the questions about Brandenburg, said University of New Mexico political science professor Tim Krebs, and could leave her vulnerable politically.
“It’s obviously good news for her. It takes the heat off her for a little while,” Krebs said. “It’s closed down a discussion, but it doesn’t mean some underlying issues aren’t still out there.”
Krebs said the conclusions in the Balderas report show Brandenburg “acted in ways that create the appearance of impropriety.”
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