(This article was originally published on February 4, 2014)
When Lacresia Rivera needed to run to the store, she did it in style.
Rivera had a whole parking lot to choose from. Typically, she went with the Cadillac Escalade.
It was a sweet deal, given that Rivera wasn’t making a car payment or writing a check to an insurance company for the privilege of driving the high-end, luxury SUV around town. She also didn’t have to pay for gas.
How was Rivera able to pull it off??
She’s a civilian employee at the Albuquerque Police Department’s vehicle seizure unit. The Escalade was forfeited by a convicted drunk driver. Taxpayers were footing the bill for maintenance on the vehicle – and for the gas that went in it.
The whole arrangement is in direct violation of numerous city of Albuquerque rules and policies.
And, a KRQE News 13 investigation shows Rivera was not alone.
Anna Griego and Kyle Evans, two of her coworkers, also were commandeering seized vehicles from the city’s forfeiture lot, driving them around town and taking them home. In addition to the Escalade, KRQE has learned that the employees were driving Nissans, GMC trucks and Chevy pickups.
They ran up healthy fuel tabs, too. In 2013, Griego’s taxpayer-funded gas tab was more than $1,500. Evans charged the city for more than $2,000. And Rivera pumped more than $2,300 into the gas-guzzling Escalade she wasn’t supposed to be taking home.
A city ordinance directs APD to impound vehicles of convicted drunken drivers who are arrested on suspicion of DWI. The city can eventually force the driver to forfeit the vehicle. According to the ordinance, APD is supposed to sell forfeited vehicles at auction.
It was skipping that last step that allowed Rivera and the others to perpetrate their joyriding scheme.
For example: Michael Baca was arrested in 2011 on suspicion of aggravated DWI following a hit-and-run accident. Police seized his Escalade and, a year later, a judge ordered the SUV forfeited to the city.
But instead of selling the Escalade at auction as the ordinance spells out, APD spent $7,000 fixing it up. Rivera then grabbed the keys and used it as her personal take home vehicle. She did the same with a Ford Ranger that was forfeited by an accused drunk driver in 2008.
News 13 asked City Councilor Don Harris which part of the ordinance allows APD employees to take forfeited vehicles and use them for personal use.
“Oh, it doesn’t say that anywhere,” Harris said. “And in fact I think the ordinance does not even allow the city to do anything other than sell these vehicles.”
For her part, Rivera refused to answer questions about what she and the others were doing.
Last month, News 13 presented its findings to top city officials, including Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry and interim Police Chief Allen Banks.
“Its an entirely unacceptable, unapproved situation,” Perry said, adding that the city is looking into the matter. “That internal affairs investigation is looking at how long this practice has been going on. It could be years, many years, the severity of the violations, and it will involve administrative and disciplinary process up to and including termination if necessary.”
APD Sgt. Donovan Rivera supervises the department’s seizure unit. He told News 13 the practice has been going on for years – since before he arrived in the unit. Sgt. Rivera said he was aware civilian employees were using forfeited vehicles for personal use, but he didn’t know it was wrong.
Banks said he has put a stop to the practice, but the departing interim chief stopped short of saying the employees would have to reimburse taxpayers for the gas and maintenance charges.
“That’s something we have to look into,” Banks said. “I can’t say I’m going to hold these employees accountable and make them pay this money back. They will no long have take-home vehicles … and we will look to make sure we are doing everything right by what the city requires us to do.”
Councilor Harris said: “The most important thing is, the chief needs to take some action against these employees who are violating the public trust.”
Banks said the blame is his.
“Well ultimately, it’s my responsibility when I came on in August,” he said. “My responsibility is to make sure that this entire department is in compliance and at that point is where I failed. And since this being brought to our attention, that has been changed.”