TUCUMCARI, N.M. (KRQE) - To the casual observer one nicely paved Tucumcari driveway is just a driveway. But to law enforcement officials there's something fishy about this stretch of pavement, and it's got the scent of scandal.
Details of what happened here have been kept under wraps for six years. In fact, it's only in the last couple of months that KRQE News 13 has been able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
This story begins along the central business district of this eastern New Mexico city. In 2006 the New Mexico Department of Transportation spent a year and $16 million repairing, renovating and repaving First Street, Tucumcari's main thoroughfare. Two construction companies were hired for the job: Albuquerque-based A. S. Horner Incorporated and Daniel Construction and Supply Company of Tucumcari.
NMDOT Civil Engineering Tech Tommy Garcia was the lead inspector on the project. Garcia is accused of not only being on the payroll of private contractors but also diverting leftover asphalt from the state to pave his own driveway.
It was Garcia's job to oversee and approve contractor work on the Tucumcari highway project. But it wasn't just downtown that got an expensive new look. At the same time as they were renovating Tucumcari's public streets for the DOT, contractors quietly built an expensive driveway at the private residence of DOT inspector Garcia.
Daniel Construction paved Garcia's driveway after hours. A. S. Horner helped out, too, by supplying construction equipment and manpower.
A New Mexico State Police investigator was later told the contractors used truckloads of leftover asphalt from the state project to pave Garcia's driveway. Garcia says he paid for the $7,000 driveway job with a $2,500 check and some cash, and the rest he claims he worked off in his spare time.
That was in 2006. The driveway deal was kept under wraps for four years until a tip in 2010 launched a State Police investigation.
"We looked into allegations as to whether or not there was criminal activity going on with the result of that driveway, an allegation that an individual that worked as the highway supervisor in charge of inspecting a highway project had a very large asphalt driveway put in at his residence," said 10th Judicial District Attorney Tim Rose. "There was some indications that the asphalt that was used was intended and actually purchased by the state of New Mexico for the highway project."
The DOT's Office of the Inspector General opened its own investigation, but for unknown reasons, the DOT refused to turn its findings over to police. In fact, the DOT hid its report from the authorities for three years.
"(The) State Police officer who was handling the case was trying and made numerous attempts to get access to this investigative report," Rose said. "Finally I was able to in February write a letter, a pretty strongly worded letter, to the Department of Transportation. I copied that over to the governor's office demanding to have access to that."
The DOT's investigation finally was turned over to the district attorney in April. Among the findings was a bombshell.
According to the inspector general, at the same time Tommy Garcia was inspecting highway projects for the state, he was secretly on the payroll of Daniel Construction, the same contractor whose work he was inspecting. And it was Daniel Construction that paved Garcia's private driveway.
According to the DOT, Garcia's failure to disclose his outside employment is a violation of the Governmental Conduct Act.
"It appeared there was some criminal behavior and some criminal actions ongoing." Rose said. However, due to the lengthy delays, Rose said he was forced to close the case without filing charges. .
"Even if we wanted to pursue charges, it just wasn't going to happen," the DA continued. "The case would have been dismissed based on the statute-of-limitations problem."
In April the governor appointed Tom Church as the cabinet secretary overseeing NMDOT. He was not involved in the handling of this case.
"I don't believe this is appropriate operating behavior for a state-run department," Church said. "He (Garcia) worked undisclosed for a subcontractor. He used equipment from the primary contractor to pave his driveway. He made a payment to a contractor that was significantly less than the dollar value of the project.
"The fact that he was inspecting a project, that he then used those contractors for personal use, is unacceptable."
The DOT disciplined Garcia. A department source, however, called the punishment minimal. Today Garcia is assigned to the Department of Transportation's District 4 office in Las Vegas.
Garcia told KRQE News 13 he's done nothing wrong.
"What I do at work has nothing to do with what I do at home," he said.
However, he admitted being on the payroll of DOT subcontractor Daniel Construction from time to time while working as a state highway inspector.
"Yeah. On and off, just on the side," he said while adding, "Not officially, no."
Daniel Construction owner Daniel Mares refused comment and hung up. A. S. Horner project supervisor Johnny Macias conceded the company's equipment was used in the driveway project.
"I was called by Daniel Construction to borrow one of my pieces of equipment," Macias said. "I told him yes, he could borrow it."
Macias, however, said he was neither told, nor did he ask, what the equipment was to be used for.
Asked if he knew equipment would be used to pave the inspector's driveway, Macias replied, "No. No."
Was a crime committed in Tucumcari? New Mexico taxpayers may never know.
"I'm not saying whether they are guilty or not guilty," Rose said. "All I can say is that we had an investigation, and this investigation resulted eventually in enough evidence that I would have approved charges."
For Church, the bottom line is clear.
"It was absolutely wrong to pave your driveway while you are an inspector on a project," he said. "This is a trust of the taxpayers we're talking about."
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