DA Torrez Crying Wolf?
Imagine this scenario: You're the owner of a company with a 300-person sales department. The manager of the sales department tells you he needs a 30 percent budget increase so he can hire 20 more sales people in order to do his job properly. You look at the sales department and realize that with its current budget it has 45 unfilled jobs, 18 of which are sales reps.
A. Give the sales department the 30 percent increase with no questions asked.
B. Ask the sales manager why he hasn't filled those 45 vacant positions and what he's doing with all that unspent money.
C. Demand that the sales manager fill the 45 vacant positions and see how things go before asking for more money.
D. Tell the sales manager that with his attitude he should be working in government.
E. Fire the sales manager.
That scenario I just described is real, but for a slight change: The sales manager is actually Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez. He runs the 300-person DA's office and he is asking the state Legislature for a 30 percent increase to his current budget of $18.2 million so he can hire 20 more attorneys and give us more crime-fighting punch.
But, like the sales manager, Torrez has 45 unfilled positions in his office, 18 of which are attorneys.
So why is Torrez asking for more money for more attorneys when he hasn't hired all the attorneys he's budgeted for?
Why doesn't Torrez fill those positions and see how his office does with 18 more attorneys before asking for more money?
And why aren't state lawmakers demanding to know of Torrez why he's asking for more money for more attorneys when he has 18 vacant attorney positions?
One possible answer to those questions is that this is government, and this is New Mexico, and no one seems to care about how our money – that's right, it's our money – is being spent.
So why hasn't Torrez filled those vacant positions and what is he doing with that money?
Well, he's apparently using it to hire contract attorneys to go through a backlog of police shooting cases. And he's apparently using it to pay the attorneys he does hire more than the state says he should be paying them. Here's what Torrez's spokesman, Michael Patrick, emailed me in response to my questions about why Torrez is asking for more money when he has 18 unfilled attorney positions:
“The Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office has been underfunded for years, a point made plain by the fact that while this jurisdiction has 50% or more of the reported crime in the state it only receives 26.5% of the funds appropriated for prosecutors. Though authorized, attorney positions in this were never adequately funded - indeed, as the following graph makes clear, our employees are paid less than other criminal justice stakeholders including other district attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office and the public defender’s office.
“In addition to paying special prosecutors to review one of the largest backlogs of officer involved shootings in the country, and providing critical resources for trial, we primarily use vacancy savings to recruit and retain more experienced attorneys rather than losing them to the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the private sector, all of which are able to pay substantially more money. Moreover, the strategy of paying more to recruit and retain more experienced attorneys is already paying off, as evidenced by the fact that our homicide conviction rate increased 15% in the first year of this administration.”
So how poorly are those attorneys in Torrez's office paid that the DA has to offer them more money to stick around?
According to the state's Sunshine Portal, a trial attorney in Torrez's office is paid $67,662 a year. A senior trial attorney gets $74,755 a year, and a chief deputy DA – Torrez has one unfilled job in this category - $91,270 a year. There is also a vacancy for a deputy DA, which pays $82,596 a year.
Torrez wants more money from the Legislature to hire 20 more attorneys. Yet, with his current budget he has 18 vacant attorney positions.
Something isn't right here.
Maybe some legislators and members of the news media will start asking Torrez some hard questions.