White collar crime's a dirty business: FBI battles a state load of public corruption

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By Carol A. Clark

ALBUQUERQUE — Public officials who are successful, well-respected family men and women risk it all the day they act out of greed. When they cross that line, chances are better than good they will come to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The abuse of power by public officials goes back a long way in this state, said Special Agent Marcus B. McCaskill, with the FBI’s White Collar Crime Program. Their motivation is a desire for more money, more power or both, McCaskill told participants at the FBI Citizens’ Academy Tuesday.

“We get Fs in New Mexico from every ethics group in the nation,” he said. “It’s a universal problem but it is a problem worse in New Mexico. We are in the top five in the nation.”

Special Agent In Charge Thomas C. McClenaghan explained that public corruption is one of the hardest cases to make.

“I think we could put our entire office of 117 agents in this state on public corruption and we wouldn’t be able to cover it all because there is so much,” he said.

McCaskill reviewed a number of such cases investigated by the FBI. From 2004-2007, he worked on the investigative team for the “Midas Touch” case targeting New Mexico treasurers Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya.

Vigil was convicted on one count of attempted extortion and acquitted of 23 other charges of extortion and racketeering. He has appealed his conviction and is currently serving a 37-month prison sentence in Texas. Montoya was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to a four-year prison term in Colorado.

The bureau has a number of other public corruption cases under investigation.

“Our weeks are pretty busy and the cases are intensive in terms of resources needed,” McCaskill said. “Our whole squad could be devoted to public corruption and we still wouldn’t have enough people.”

Other public corruption cases McCaskill mentioned involved state police in Farmington working in cahoots with area drug dealers and the scandal in the state’s insurance office involving former state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna and his former deputy Joseph Ruiz.

McCaskill travels around the United States in the course of his work and spoke of encountering a “corruption perception” about New Mexico.

Employees of companies involved in brokerage services, investment banking and asset management are actually reluctant to do business in New Mexico because of that negative perception.

“It bothers me,” he said, “when people say they don’t want to do business in New Mexico because ‘you’ve got to pay to play.’”

The FBI often works with the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies on public corruption cases, McCaskill said, adding that public corruption ranks at number four on the FBI White Collar Crime Program’s top 10 list.

Before McCaskill joined the FBI in 1998, he gained extensive experience during a four-year stint in the United States Army as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He served as the nuclear, biological and chemical program coordinator for the unit, which was responsible for emergency response in Virginia for found ordnance and improvised explosive devices.

McCaskill and his unit also provided support to the U.S. Secret Service for explosive security on presidential, vice presidential and other VIP events.

For information about the FBI, access http://albuquerque.fbi.gov.

Reporter Carol A. Clark is a student in the FBI’s Citizens’ Academy.