SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – State records show Grant County District Attorney Francesca Estevez makes a lot of money, but that didn’t stop a New Mexico judge from recently appointing Estevez a public defender in her ongoing criminal case.
According to recent court filings, Las Cruces Judge Douglas Driggers has ordered the New Mexico Public Defender’s Office to represent Estevez in her ongoing criminal case that is currently sitting within the New Mexico Court of Appeals. However, Estevez tells KRQE News 13 that she never asked for the appointment.
Estevez has been wrapped up in a three-year legal battle over a high-profile driving incident in southwest New Mexico. In June 2016, a witness captured video of Estevez’s state-owned vehicle swerving in and out of its driving lane on a highway outside of Silver City.
In 2017, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office brought criminal charges against Estevez, accusing the sitting DA of reckless driving, disorderly conduct, and several ethics charges.
In 2018, Estevez took a plea deal. She pleaded guilty to reckless driving and disorderly conduct, but that wasn’t the end of it.
Prosecutors with New Mexico Attorney General’s Office appealed an earlier decision in the case by Judge Douglas Driggers. Driggers dismissed three charges of “ethical principles of public service,” ruling that the charges were unconstitutional.
A panel of judges on the Court of Appeals has yet to decide on the appeal and the case remains open. If the appeal is granted, Estevez could face future court proceedings for the previously dropped ethics charges.
In the past, Estevez was represented by private attorney Jim Foy. However, Foy resigned from his law practice in early 2019 after being appointed to serve as a judge in the 6th Judicial District Court, representing Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties.
Shortly after Foy’s resignation from his law practice, paperwork was filed in Estevez’s case requesting the appointment of a public defender.
In late April 2019, a private attorney, Keren Fenderson filed a “motion for appointment of appellate counsel and free process” on behalf of Estevez.
In early May 2019, Judge Douglas Driggers approved the motion, appointing the Law Offices of the Public Defender to represent Estevez, declaring Estevez is “indigent.”
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur learned of the appointment in June.
“It raised a concern and one of my first thoughts was that it might be a mistake,” said Baur. “It would be so unusual for somebody in that position and somebody making that amount of money to be considered indigent.”
According to online records on the state’s Sunshine Portal website, Estevez makes nearly $121,000 a year in salary from the state.
Baur says neither the court nor Estevez ever contacted the Law Offices of Public Defender about the filing.
Typically, in cases originating from the 6th Judicial District Court, a judge is asked to make a determination on if a client can receive help from a public defender. That’s because there is no main office for the Law Offices of Public Defender in Grant, Hidalgo or Luna counties.
“The procedure here is unusual because there was a finding of indigency without apparently any facts being presented,” said Baur.
KRQE News 13 contacted Francesca Estevez via email Tuesday to ask about the situation. Estevez provided a statement, saying she never requested help from the Law Offices of Public Defender.
“I never requested appointment of public defender appellate counsel, was not informed of the appointment of appellate counsel. I have never spoken to or know Keren Fenderson, esq.”–Francesca Estevez, 6th Judicial District Attorney, defendant.
KRQE News 13 also contacted the attorney who filed the motion for a public defender, Keren Fenderson.
In a statement sent to KRQE News 13, Fenderson wrote that she was “commissioned” by the Law Office of the Public Defender after Foy resigned to ensure that Estevez had no gap in legal representation while her case was on appeal.
“I was commissioned by the Law Offices of the Public Defender for the sole purpose of appointing their office to represent Ms. Estevez. My understanding of the situation was that Ms. Estevez was previously represented by a Mr. Foy who could or would no longer represent Ms. Estevez. In the meantime, there was an appeal filed and there was going to be a gap in representation. The Law Offices of the Public Defender strives to make sure everyone is represented, and thus wanted to make sure there was no gap in representation should Ms. Estevez request and qualify for public representation. A gap in representation could have had consequential repercussions should she’d been in need of representation. Because I only represented Ms. Estevez for that limited purpose, I have no idea whether she in fact applied and/or qualified for public representation.”–Keren Fenderson, attorney, filed initial motion on behalf of F. Estevez.
It’s still unclear exactly who told Fenderson that Estevez needs representation from the Law Offices of the Public Defender.
KRQE News 13 contacted Judge Douglas Driggers about the situation, however, a staff member for Driggers said he is unable to comment on the open case.
Estevez would still have to apply if she wanted help from the Law Offices of the Public Defender. According to Bennett, Estevez’s income would be screened as part of the process.
So far, the Law Office of the Public Defender says it hasn’t worked on Estevez’s case at all.
Estevez is also listed as representing herself in her Court of Appeals case.