Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Richardson, Barreras & Wen Ho Lee

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 12, 2009

Former Santa Fe County jail warden Lawrence Barreras, more recently a state Transportation Department supervisor, was the subject of a hard-hitting news profile this week. The department put him on paid administrative leave Monday following the publication of the two-part series. (Click HERE for Part 1, HERE for Part 2)

Investigative reporter Colleen Heild of the Albuquerque Journal documented how Barreras got hired at the dawn of the Richardson administration in 2002 at the Department of Children, Youth and Families despite the fact that he had been fired in 1997 from the state Corrections Department for alleged financial wrongdoing; how he later was hired at the Transportation Department — at the same time he was a consultant for an Albuquerque architectural firm that was part of a controversial DOT redevelopment project; and how Barreras got a 15 percent pay raise during a time of a so-called salary freeze.

Barreras always claimed he was fired by Corrections in 1997 because he opposed then Gov. Gary Johnson’s moves to privatize prisons. The department said the firing was over allegations Barreras had padded his time cards and travel expenses.

Barreras sued the state, but the case was thrown out — first by a state District Court and then by the Court of Appeals. Barreras, then working for the private company operating the county jail, had appealed his civil case to the state Supreme Court when Richardson, then governor-elect, tapped him for his transition team.

He served on the committee advising Richardson on prisons. Barreras appealed to the Supreme Court, Heild reported, but three weeks later the case between Barreras and the Corrections Department, now under Richardson’s control, was settled. And soon Barreras was working for CYFD. And, according to Heild, there’s no mention in Barreras’ personnel file of his firing — just a 2004 letter from a Corrections official saying Barreras left under good terms.

Different roles in a common controversy: After reading the new pieces on Barreras, one major question nagged me: Where did Richardson first get to know Barreras? The governor was working in Washington, D.C., in the Clinton administration during most of Barreras’ time with Corrections. What did these two have in common?

One possible answer: Wen Ho Lee.

Richardson was secretary of Energy in late 1999 when Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was arrested and charged with 59 felony counts, including espionage. He spent nine months in solitary confinement until the case began to unravel and he was allowed to plea to one felony of improperly downloading restricted data. The other charges were dropped and Lee was released. Barreras was warden of the jail during Lee’s time there.

Lee’s supporters complained the conditions imposed on Lee were harsh. He wasn’t permitted personal phone calls. He was not allowed contact visits with his family. He could only place (collect) calls to his lawyers. He was allowed one hour a day in the recreation yard.

These conditions were not imposed by Barreras, but by federal authorities. In fact, according to a March 2000 memo from former Santa Fe Sheriff Ray Sisneros, who was jail monitor at the time, Lee praised Barreras.

“Other than being incarcerated, he had no complaints,” Sisneros wrote in the memo to the county manager — which became part of the record of a U.S. Senate Subcommittee report on the Lee case. “The staff was treating him very well. He singled out Warden Barreras and Deputy Warden Romero as treating him great. ... His only request was for additional fruit at the evening meal, which I relayed to Warden Barreras.”

Sisneros wrote that he’d received phone calls alleging abuse of Lee. “Mr. Lee was very surprised about the calls and stated,‘ “I haven’t complained to anyone about the jail because I am being treated very well.’ ”

A few weeks later, Richardson wrote U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, saying he’d checked into Lee’s treatment at the jail. “I am satisfied that his civil rights are being adequately protected,” Richardson wrote.

(For copies of both the Sisneros memo and the Richardson mentioned above -- and lots more documents pertaining to Wen Ho Lee -- CLICK HERE. Search the page for "Sisneros." Richardson's letter is right below that memo.)

Was it during the Wen Ho Lee confinement that Richardson was won over? I asked Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos about that possibility in an e-mail Tuesday, but all I got was a sarcastic response: “Seriously, Steve?”

No reply to my follow-up.