By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Correspondent
De Baca County residents could vote on whether to recall their sheriff if a group of county residents convinces a court to let it circulate a recall petition.
Sheriff Gary Graves said he believes he will not only serve out his term — which expires in 2006 — but be re-elected in that year.
The state constitution allows for the recall of elected county officials, but first a local district judge must rule that probable cause exists to show the official committed “malfeasance or misfeasance in office or violation of the oath of office.” Petitioners must then obtain signatures equal to one-third of the number of people voting in the last general election.
Last week, six area residents, calling themselves De Baca County Concerned Citizens, filed court documents accusing Graves of misconduct in office.
“He’s a real problem,” said Allen Sparks, who is one of the six. “We believe he’s committed malfeasance and misfeasance in office and he’s got to go. The charges that are in the petition are pretty serious charges and we’re pretty sure our lawyer can prove them true.”
Sparks and Graves said the petition accuses Graves of improperly using public money for his own private use; using the office of sheriff to threaten, harass, and intimidate county residents; violating the rights of those in the county jail; failing to maintain proper financial records; and misappropriating or failing to account for money and property entrusted to the sheriff’s office.
Graves agreed the charges are serious but said he’s not guilty.
“I feel that it’s a few (people) that have gotten together and made a broad issue of charges and have not been specific,” Graves said. “We don’t even know the specifics of what they are coming after me on at this point. Basically we’re just going to go back, continue on, and I will continue to do the work of the sheriff as I have been doing.”
Graves said he’s retained Santa Fe ttorney Bill Robbins to represent him in the court case.
“I’m just being really cautious because I don’t want to air the court case in the media at this point,” Graves said.
Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher, who is president of the state sheriffs’ association, said he doesn’t believe Graves will be recalled.
“I feel very confident this is going to go nowhere,” Hatcher said. “The law is very specific as to how you can recall a county sheriff; it has to be for specific things and they did not make any specific allegations.”
Sparks said he didn’t want to be specific outside the courtroom. Graves has until Oct. 14 to file a formal response to the petition at which time a date could be set for a hearing in De Baca County District Court.
However, Sparks said the citizens committee needed to act now rather than waiting for the 2006 election.
“You just can’t stand to wait that long,” Sparks said. “He broke up the joint powers agreement between the city (of Fort Sumner) and the county; he’s been in the De Baca County News essentially every week for two years now.”
Hatcher said what’s happening in De Baca County could affect every sheriff in the state’s 33 counties and said the court needs to examine the case carefully before setting a precedent.
“If they don’t have more information than what they’ve got now, which is absolutely nothing, every sheriff and every elected official has a concern because there is absolutely nothing to go on,” Hatcher said.
Graves is also involved in an ongoing legal battle to exhume what is claimed to be the body of Billy the Kid buried in Fort Sumner. But Sparks said that controversy has nothing to do with the recall attempt.
Graves isn’t so sure, and said he thinks some in the county continue to hold that case against him since it could dry up a major source of tourism revenue for Fort Sumner.
A De Baca County district judge will decide next week whether to allow the exhuming of what is claimed to be the Kid’s body.