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 V.13 No.25 | June 17 - 23, 2004 

Payne's World

Buying Blow from the Bench

Brennan's bust exposes clueless local media

Where would the Chief Justice of our State District Court buy cocaine? Tony Montana might have the answer, but a 57-year-old judge? Where does someone in his position go to score blow?

As much as any question pondered in the aftermath of Judge John Brennan's arrest for DUI and cocaine possession, it seems that is one that deserves a definitive answer. The argument that alcohol and cocaine are both drugs and bad for you is the stuff of a college bull session in this case. Cocaine is, by any statutory definition, highly illicit and one of our most respected jurists was caught in possession of it. How'd he get it?

Remarkably, with the exception of KRQE News 13's Larry Barker, the local news media have shown little or no interest in that aspect of Judge Brennan's arrest until recently, even though it hints at some serious potential rot within our judicial system. Did the well-known judge make a random street buy or did he acquire his Bolivian marching powder from drug traffickers who had been in his chambers or had managed to stay out?

Instead, the media focus has been on Brennan's very public fall from grace and the fact that his once respected judicial career was over. Albuquerque Journal columnist Jim Belshaw and Kate Nelson of the Albuquerque Tribune in particular penned hand-wringing epistles pleading for understanding from the public for Brennan and remembrance of his previous good works. In hindsight, for the sake of their chosen professions, they would probably have been better off nuzzling their heads into the judge's lap in private.

Barker, Channel 13's investigative reporter, went public shortly afterward with a confidential 1998 narcotics report compiled for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety raising questions that should have been asked from the outset of the judge's arrest. According to the 48-page document, a number of district court judges (Brennan specifically is named four different times) and criminal defense attorneys were reportedly buying cocaine for their personal use from the owner of a now-defunct cantina who, in turn, was getting the coke from two known drug traffickers.

After Barker's story aired, Larry Ahrens and Jim Villanucci at 770 KKOB picked up the thread, causing Nelson (who is also the Tribune's managing editor) to call the station behind the scenes and bitch about the talk jocks and their focus on the case. Nelson's lobbying efforts didn't do much good as public outrage and interest forced reporters of both papers out of the Journal Center's biosphere to cover this part of the story. Although in the fashion of journalists who have been scooped, they put on their own spin: the catalyst for a front-page story in the Journal wasn't the existence of allegations about Brennan's coke use dating all the way back to 1998 and the possibility that other judges might be involved, it was that the "Drug Claims Disturb Governor."

Interestingly, both the Journal and Tribune went out of their way to discount the 1998 document, writing that it "was not the result of an investigation" and was "based on unverified information from informants." Now granted, nothing in the report has been established as the truth beyond a reasonable doubt but we do know that one of the judges named in the report as a cocaine aficionado was caught in 2004 with cocaine.

If the portion of the report alleging "unverified" cocaine use by Brennan is accurate, it raises the possibility that the rest of the report may be true and verifiable. If the rest of the report is true, we aren't talking about an individual case of substance abuse by a judge—we're talking about a cocaine clique that, at one time anyway, may have existed within our judicial system. The appropriate response is a complete and thorough investigation of the allegations outlined in the 1998 report, not an orchestrated belittling and dismissal of them by journalists like Nelson because those involved are all basically the "right" kind of people.

After all, how does anyone—including supposedly unbiased types like Belshaw and Nelson—defend a scenario where our judges and the defense attorneys who litigate cases before them unwind together after hours by doing illegal blow they've purchased from drug dealers? In that sort of cocaine candyland, it's doubtful justice is blind—even if her nostrils are wide open. Will a judge who's done coke with a defense attorney hammer that attorney's clients in chambers the next day?

Gov. Bill Richardson recently stated that, "Public confidence in the judiciary is shaken and it's important to restore it." By restoring public confidence, let's hope the governor doesn't mean (like some in our state's media) "ignoring" any problems that may exist or have existed within our judicial system. Justice and reporting are both supposedly blind.

It'd be nice if we could, at least, get half of that equation right.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.

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