Albuquerque Cops Received Corruption Tip Before FBI Probe

In December 2022, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) received a tip that officers assigned to the APD’s DWI unit were getting paid to make cases disappear. The tipster specifically mentioned Honorio Alba, one of several officers who would later resign amid a burgeoning corruption scandal featuring that very allegation. Yet an internal investigation found no evidence to substantiate the tip.

That episode, recently revealed by City Desk ABQ, helps explain why evidence of longstanding corruption within the DWI unit did not come to light until the FBI began looking into it. “We’re dealing with stuff that we anticipate started decades ago, and we’ve done a lot of things that have got us to this point,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said at a press conference in February. “But we will continue to dig and look and leave no stone unturned and make sure that we get to the bottom of this.”

It seems like the department left plenty of stones unturned when it had a chance to clean its own house before the feds stepped in. Instead of telling the FBI about the alleged corruption, the APD apparently did not take the situation seriously until after it heard from the FBI.

In October 2023, 10 months after the APD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit launched its fruitless probe, the FBI informed Medina that it was investigating the DWI unit. The following month, Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency received a letter from a local court official who said Alba reportedly had pulled over a speeding, flagrantly drunk driver and, instead of filing charges, referred him to a specific local defense attorney.

The FBI investigation became public knowledge after agents executed search warrants at that attorney’s office and the homes of several officers in January 2024. Local news outlets began looking into DWI cases that had been handled by Alba and his colleagues. They found suspiciously low conviction rates that somehow had eluded the APD’s investigators in 2022.

In response to the corruption allegations, the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office dropped some 200 DWI cases, saying it could not rely on the testimony of the cops who had made the arrests. KOB, the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, reported that Alba, who was honored as “Officer of the Year” by the New Mexico chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving last July, was the arresting officer in many of those cases.

KRQE, the local CBS affiliate, looked at DWI cases filed during the previous six years. It found that Joshua Montaño, a 19-year veteran, “was named as the officer in at least 36 cases” in which the defendants were represented by Thomas Clear, the lawyer whose office the FBI had searched. Nearly 90 percent of those cases “ended in dismissals.”

City Desk ABQ examined “85 DWI cases dating back to 2017” involving Clear and Alba, Montaño, or two other members of the DWI unit, Harvey Johnson and Nelson Ortiz. It found that 14 percent of the cases ended with trial convictions or plea deals, which was “much lower than the Metro Court average of 56% convictions in DWI cases over the same years.” The other 86 percent were dismissed, typically because officers did not show up at pretrial interviews or hearings. The “vast majority” of the defendants were arrested by Alba or Montaño.

Why didn’t the APD discover any of this back in 2022? Acting Sgt. Jon O’Guin “started gathering information but—after looking through officer activity—didn’t turn up any evidence,” City Desk ABQ reports, citing a five-page “intel file” that it obtained through a public records request.

According to the tipster, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told City Desk ABQ, three bars in Northeast Albuquerque were alerting police to intoxicated patrons so they could be nabbed after they drove away. “They were targeting individuals, who then could get their cases dismissed,” Gallegos said, describing the tip. “So they would arrest and charge them and then get their cases dismissed and there would be some sort of payment for that.”

In response to that tip, City Desk ABQ says, O’Guin examined “the activity of the seven officers who were on the DWI unit at that time, including Alba, Johnson and Montaño.” But his investigation apparently was limited to the specific allegation, as opposed to the general claim that officers were helping arrestees avoid charges in exchange for payoffs.

In December 2022, the officers’ activity “did not show any obvious indicators that would match the allegations of the information received for the initial complaint in regards to increased activity in the areas of the three locations mentioned in NE Albuquerque,” O’Guin wrote in the intel file. “All officers’ CAD [computer-aided dispatch] activity showed what would appear to be normal traffic stops and requests for assistance responses across the city.” The same was true, he said, for October and November.

That summary of O’Guin’s investigation is dated January 2024, by which point the FBI had collected enough evidence to obtain search warrants. “When the allegations were relayed from the FBI, the detective was asked to update the file with documentation of the work that was initially done,” Gallegos explained. “So that part of the report was dated January 2024, when he provided that information.”

Given the timing, O’Guin’s gloss may have been deliberately self-exculpating. In any case, he evidently never thought to look at what was generally happening with the DWI cases that Alba et al. handled. If he had, he would have discovered the same curious pattern that reporters found after the FBI raids. Those high dismissal rates reinforce the allegation that these officers, after stopping drivers for DWI, would “get their cases dismissed” in exchange for “some sort of payment.”

No corruption charges have been filed yet. But Alba, Montaño, Johnson, Ortiz, and Lt. Justin Hunt all resigned after they were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of another internal investigation, this one prompted by the FBI probe and the letter to the Civilian Police Oversight Agency. On Tuesday, APD spokesman Daren DeAguero, a 15-year veteran who served in the DWI unit from 2014 to 2018, joined the line of exiting officers.

DeAguero resigned the same day he was scheduled to be interviewed by internal investigators. “Due to the current situation of receiving a letter of investigation with very little time to obtain adequate representation,” he wrote in a memo to Medina, “I unfortunately will be ending my employment [with] the Albuquerque Police Department effective April 30, 2024.”

Montaño was more expansive when he resigned on March 20. “When I was put on administrative leave, I thought there would be an opportunity for me to talk to the department about what I knew regarding the FBI’s investigation,” he wrote. “I thought there would be a time [when] I could disclose what I knew from within APD and how the issues I let myself get caught up in within the DWI Unit were generational. I thought there would be a time where I could talk about all the other people who should be on administrative leave as well, but aren’t.”

Montaño said he ultimately decided against cooperating with APD investigators. “In order for me to talk to the City about what I knew,” he wrote, “I needed to not be the City’s scapegoat for its own failures.” He complained that Medina “has made it seem like there are just a few bad officers acting on their own.” That is “far from the truth,” Montaño said.

Among other things, the FBI reportedly is investigating claims that officers deliberately missed court dates, resulting in the dismissal of DWI cases. But according to Montaño, “officers all know that our attendance, or non-attendance, at Court is watched over and monitored.” While “I take responsibility for my actions,” he said, the responsibility for the alleged misconduct extends up the chain of command and more than a few years back in time—probably “decades,” according to Medina himself.

“There is a much bigger story here,” Montaño’s lawyer, Thomas Grover, told City Desk ABQ. “If Officer Montaño is a cinder block in this saga, there’s a whole wall to address. It goes outward and upward.”