New Mexico elections clerk hit with ethics charge

A county clerk in New Mexico abused the power of her office and broke the law in the run-up to the 2022 elections, a state agency alleged in court this week, claiming that the official deleted and mishandled midterm ballots; sought, obtained and discussed drugs; and even deployed a Taser near a coworker.

The complaint also alleges that Yvonne Otero, a Republican elected as Torrance County clerk in 2020, violated election procedures around certifying election machines, alluded to having sex and doing cocaine during work hours and threatened employees — before she eventually just stopped doing her job in the fall, before the election.

Otero’s attorney, Jacob Candelaria, said the complaint included false, “outlandish, and dramatized” allegations, and argued election deniers were trying to punish his client for not accepting false claims about voter fraud.  

“My client fully intends to defend herself against these false allegations,” he said, adding that she was separately seeking a court order to get her job back.

The extraordinary allegations were made by the New Mexico State Ethics Commission, an independent state agency that enforces governmental conduct and anti-corruption laws, in a court filing on Tuesday.

Torrance County requested the commission investigate the matter, said Jessica Randall, deputy general counsel on the commission.

Torrance is a small, rural county east of Albuquerque that has been a hot bed of false voter fraud claims. The county commissioners faced significant backlash for certifying the June primary election results, and they later authorized an independent recount of the county’s paper ballots.

The county, whose commissioners first sought to oust Otero in October, recently hired a new county clerk, after voting to remove Otero for abandoning her post. A January posting says the job pays $69,148 plus benefits.

Tabulators, trust and a Taser

Several of the allegations address Otero’s handling of the 2022 midterm election.

Otero presigned ballot tabulator certification forms in advance, before the equipment was tested and certified, so she could go on vacation, according to the complaint, and she deleted or ignored a handful of emailed ballots from overseas. Military and overseas voters can cast absentee ballots electronically, in accordance with federal law.

Candelaria said the complaint was the first he and his client had heard of deleted ballots, but he said she didn’t deny signing the election certification forms in advance.

Data flash cards sit on certification forms for ballot-counting machines bearing the signature of Torrance County Clerk Yvonne Otero as testing begins at a county warehouse in Estancia, N.M., on Sept. 29, 2022. State and local authorities said that Otero signed the certification papers before the equipment was tested and inspected for use in the general election, without ever attending the inspections.Andres Leighton / AP file

Alex Curtas, director of communications for New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said Toulouse Oliver was “unaware, but extremely troubled” by the allegations that overseas ballots were not properly handled and counted and would conduct her own internal review.

He said the county’s deputy clerk, Sylvia Chavez, had worked closely with state officials to oversee the county’s midterm election and that “she did a great job.”

The rest of the complaint’s allegations range from the misuse of government resources — giving a staff member’s computer to her brother, for instance — to the bizarre and inappropriate.

Otero was observed “intimately touching” a member of the public at work, according to the complaint, before going into her private office with the individual. She allegedly alluded to having sex in her office after emerging with remarks like “that’s how you break in the probate judge’s desk,” and “I needed that stress relief.”

Candelaria said she was visited at work by a male friend and closed the door for privacy but did not have sex at work.

“Those are perhaps some of the most outlandish and are, in my client’s view, sexist and discriminatory allegations being made against her,” he said.

One incident that both Candelaria and the commission agree on is that Otero discharged a Taser near an employee in the county clerk’s office, in what she claimed was a joke.

Candelaria said she did it to startle a sleeping co-worker and acknowledges now the joke was in “poor taste.”

Otero allegedly sought “unprescribed narcotic drugs” from a subordinate employee — threatening “mutual destruction” if the employee did not do as asked — and spoke about doing cocaine.

In one April 2022 instance, she told her employees she needed a “small bump” to get through the day, the complaint alleges, and said that Otero had acknowledged using cocaine for the past six years.

Candelaria said Otero asked a colleague to obtain a prescription drug for her while she was between primary care doctors — but did not threaten the co-worker — and said she’d used cocaine outside work sometime in the past six years to help with her ADHD. He denied she’d used cocaine at work.

“Having served in the Legislature for 10 years, if the Ethics Commission wanted to punish every single person who used cocaine at any point in the prior six years, a good majority of the Legislature would be subject to discipline,” he added.

The complaint also alleged that Otero stopped coming to work and stopped signing on to her computer at home. Candelaria said she’d been instructed to work from home by the county attorney after an employee complained about the Taser incident. That incident is also why she signed the election certification forms before the certification had taken place.

“There has never been a point in time where she has abandoned her job duties, period,” he said.

Mario Jimenez, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a former elections official, applauded the ethics commission for investigating the matter but said he was nonetheless disheartened to learn of the allegations.

“When I read it, I was nothing short of infuriated,” he told NBC News. “We’re losing public trust.”

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