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New Mexico Sheriff Accused of Stealing the Jail

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (CN) - After arresting his chief jailer on a felony charge and taking control of the jail, a New Mexico sheriff was served with a restraining order - at his news conference - and the Board of Commissioners told him he is "not needed nor even wanted at the jail."

The bizarre doings unfolded Tuesday, when Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique "Kiki" Vigil arrested county jail director Christopher Barela at his home at around 6:10 a.m. Barela was charged with embezzlement and fraud involving more than $20,000, bringing contraband weapons into the jail and willful neglect of duty, according to the local Fox-TV station.

Vigil then issued "a purported 'Executive Order'" and "immediately seized control of the jail," the County Commission says in its request for a restraining order, date-stamped at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday.

The County Commission says Vigil has no authority to seize the jail, which is under the control of the county manager, and has been since 1989, when the County Commission removed it from the sheriff's control.

But the day was not over. County Manager Julia Brown served the sheriff with the restraining order at Vigil's second news conference of the day. A reporter for Las Cruces Sun-News, Diana Alba Solar, posted a video of Brown serving the sheriff, at 3:34 p.m. Tuesday.

The sheriff, who appeared surprised, looked at the restraining order in his hand and said, "This is kind of back-door, you know. This is kind of back door. What about transparency? What about transparency?" as the county manager walked away.

The restraining order says there has not been "any sort of disturbance whatsoever" at the jail. "Consequently, there has been no request by the jail staff or county management for any assistance from the Sheriff's Department. The sheriff and his staff are not needed nor even wanted at the jail."

Vigil has had a contentious relationship with the County Commission since he was elected in 2014. He sued Board Chairman Billy Garrett and Vice-Chairman Wayne Hancock in Federal Court on Oct. 29, claiming they violated his First Amendment rights because they were "angered by (his) assertive and vigorous advocacy on behalf of his department and its personnel. They decided to teach Sheriff Vigil a lesson by filing charges of unethical conduct against him. To that end, they scoured the county ordinances and policies to find a provision that he could accuse plaintiff Vigil of having broken."

Vigil said in his lawsuit that the commissioners were miffed because he sought higher pay for his officers.

After being served with the restraining order, Vigil called it a conflict of interest and said he would review it.

Neither Vigil nor the commissioners responded to telephone requests for comment at the end of the business day Thursday.

In his lawsuit, Vigil seeks punitive damages and declaratory judgment that the commissioners "are without authority to impose superintending control, including imposition of a 'Code of Conduct' over plaintiff, who is an independently elected official." He is represented by Gene Chavez, of Albuquerque.

In their lawsuit, the County Commission is represented by County Attorney Nelson Goodin. The commission asks the court for "a temporary restraining order directing the sheriff and his staff [to] vacate the premises without further delay."

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