By Darrell Todd Maurina
Two state employees face charges of stealing at least $2,900 from accounts meant to assist low-income Portales residents, according to 9th Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter.
Ricardo Mendez, 37, of Clovis, and Julia Tapia, 49, of Portales, were arrested Friday on charges of fraud over $250 and conspiracy to commit fraud over $250, fourth-degree felonies, and misdemeanor theft of identity. Carter said the charges carry a maximum penalty of nearly four years in jail and $11,000 in fines.
Mendez and Tapia were released Friday on $11,000 bond each, according to Roosevelt County Detention Center officials.
Carter said the amount of money stolen may be as high as $6,000 to $12,000, but investigators won’t know until Monday when they begin searching through records on confiscated computers.
“If we find out there has been additional money stolen, there will be additional charges filed,” Carter said.
Carter said the investigation began Wednesday when his office was contacted by Paul Ritzma, an attorney with the state offices of the Income Support Division in Santa Fe.
“They had noticed some discrepancies in Portales,” Carter said. “They were getting Social Security numbers for fraudulent accounts, saying these people had children, and the employees were withdrawing money and buying we don’t know what all.”
On Friday, two 9th Judicial District investigators conducted stakeouts at Portales ATM machines. Mendez and Tapia were observed using electronic benefits transfer cards, which are similar to ATM cards, to withdraw a total of $2,900 in $20 bills from the accounts they had set up, according to Carter.
“Apparently this had been going on for several months,” Carter said. “On Monday we will be going into the computers, seeing these accounts, determining how many fraudulent accounts have been set up, and how long this has been going on.”
Neither Mendez, Tapia nor their supervisors could be reached for comment.
The state Human Services Department said the two had been placed on leave pending an internal investigation, according to an agency press release.
“General assistance is an important program for those New Mexicans who cannot work due to a disability and are trying to make ends meet,” HSD Secretary Pamela Hyde said. “HSD has a duty to ensure the taxpayers’ money is handled properly.”