By DANIEL J. CHACÓN And ROBERT NOTT
Critics are questioning whether old sexual assault charges should disqualify Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick to run the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department.
James Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo and the governor’s appointee to be the next secretary of Indian Affairs, was accused of rape in 2007 and indicted on a number of charges, including kidnapping and aggravated battery, the following year. The case was dismissed in 2010 after the prosecution said it did not have enough evidence to take it to trial. The court record was put under seal.
“The allegations against him are very serious,” said Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque.
“I expect that they should be fully vetted, and I’m very troubled by the idea of having someone with his kind of record in that position that oversees the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force,” she said.
Mountain is poised to appear before the Senate Rules Committee for a confirmation hearing. While the committee is scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, he is not among the confirmations on the agenda.
Lujan Grisham appointed Mountain, who served as governor of the pueblo north of Santa Fe from 2006-2007 and again from 2015-2017, in early February. Her administration stuck by his selection Friday.
“The governor’s office is aware of the case and that the charges were dropped,” Maddy Hayden, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
“The governor does not intend to withdraw his nomination and we hope that those who are leveling these concerns would respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results,” Hayden added.
Rules Chairwoman Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and other Democratic committee members declined to comment on Mountain’s appointment.
“Because I’m a member of Rules, it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” said Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales.
Members of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force expressed disappointment over the governor’s selection of Mountain to lead the department, which would also make Mountain or his designee chairman of the task force. At a meeting Wednesday, a couple of members threatened to resign if Mountain is appointed.
“He should not be there. He should not be leading us into any of these conversations. He should not have a seat at our table,” said Chastity Sandoval of Nambe Pueblo during the task force meeting.
“Our governor of the state needs to know that we are not OK with this,” Sandoval said.
“The last thing I would want to see is for people to resign from their positions because of the appointment of this person, because we have a lot of good people on the task force in leadership positions, I think, that have been able to push a lot of this work forward, and we want to maintain those connections,” task force member Delilah Tenorio of the Attorney’s Office said Wednesday.
Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Crotty said she didn’t know if she was “safe in this space.”
“I’m just at the point where I feel, you know, do I need to resign from this task force?” she said at the meeting.
Angel Charley, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said in an interview Friday she met with Mountain in mid-February and asked him to recuse himself. He said he would not.
“My hope, my dream is that Mr. Mountain recuses himself completely,” she said. “The responsibility is on him now to do that.”
Barring that, she said she hopes members of the Senate conduct an in-depth vetting interview with Mountain when he appears before Senate Rules. She said Mountain’s appointment and potential confirmation is harmful to the task force and could threaten its future work.
Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, declined comment when reached by phone Friday. However, she told New Mexico In Depth, which first reported on the controversy on Thursday, she was fighting the appointment.
“It’s just not something that can happen right now,” she said, according to New Mexico In Depth. “This is not the time. This is not the place. This is not the position that can be compromised, as far as the figurehead representing Native American people within our state.”
According to a New Mexican report from the time, Mountain, who was his pueblo’s governor in 2007, was accused of raping his ex-girlfriend after she went to an Albuquerque wine festival with relatives.
The woman said she ran into Mountain, who was with some of her other relatives, and the group went to a bar and restaurant before Mountain took her and her cousin to his mother’s house. Mountain was accused of taking his ex-girlfriend to the master bedroom of the home and raping her, covering her face with a pillow when she started to scream for help, according to the 2007 New Mexican article.
All three charges stemming from the incident were dismissed by prosecutors in July 2010 because they had insufficient evidence to proceed to trial, according to court records.
Mountain also faced an aggravated DWI charge in 1996, according to online court records. That charge, along with two other traffic violations, were all dismissed. Court records also show an order of protection against Mountain in 1999.
Not everyone is against Mountain. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said in an interview Friday he has known Mountain for a long time and considers him a “stand-up person and person of integrity.”
He said it speaks to Mountain’s reputation that even after he was initially accused of sexual assault in 2007 “the community he was from still elected him to be governor.”
Mountain did not return interview requests from The New Mexican Friday. In a statement to New Mexico In Depth, he said he recognizes “how upset and disappointed our community members are as a result of these past allegations and charges, which are understandably bringing up the trauma that far too many Native women have suffered.”
Mountain noted the charges were dismissed and defended himself, saying he had “dedicated myself to reestablish connections and confidence among our tribal communities, including by serving as the governor of the Pueblo de San Ildefonso. I am committed to making things right and continuing the healing process with our community members, advocates, and legislators,” he said.
Hayden touted Mountain’s credentials, including his having been elected governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo twice and his work “within and across tribal communities for many years, including the last two with this administration, where he has been integral in carrying out many of the top priorities of the pueblos, tribes and nations of New Mexico.”
Charley called the governor’s response “disheartening”.
“It’s our experience as survivors that we have been personally silenced, dismissed and rendered powerless in our journeys to be believed, so this appointment is painful for so many of us,” she said.
Reporter Nathan Lederman and Assistant City Editor Nathan Brown contributed to this story.