Lawsuit alleges prosecutor was fired after raising concerns about judge

Lawsuit alleges prosecutor was fired after raising concerns about judge

From the Las Vegas Optic

A whistleblower lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses former San Miguel County District Attorney Richard Flores and current District Attorney Tom Clayton of terminating a prosecutor for raising concerns about a judge presiding over a case.

The suit centers on two 2019 criminal cases heard in Fourth Judicial District Court by then-state District Court Judge Gerald Baca. It alleges Baca had previously represented the defendant while working as an attorney, and that the DA’s office would not allow the prosecutor to file a motion to have Baca recused from the case.

The lawsuit was filed in First Judicial District Court by Pilar Tirado Murray, a former deputy district attorney for New Mexico’s Fourth Judicial District. Murray alleges she raised concerns about Judge Baca presiding over an August 2019 case involving Daniel Yara, who was accused of aggravated assault, because Yara was once a client of Judge Baca’s when he worked as an attorney in a private practice, according to the complaint.

In the suit, Murray says she had reason to believe that Judge Baca was not impartial about Yara, and that she brought those concerns to Clayton, who was chief deputy district attorney at the time, and who once worked in Baca’s law office. Murray alleges Clayton prohibited her from filing a motion to have the judge removed, and instead directed her to invite Judge Baca to recuse himself from the case.

Murray also alleges Clayton told her “it is the policy of this office never to recuse Judge Baca,” according to the complaint.

The suit alleges Judge Baca refused to recuse himself from Yara’s case, and in December 2019, the judge presided over another case involving Yara in which he was accused of residential burglary and bribery of a witness.

Murray says she again raised concerns about Judge Baca overseeing a case involving a former client, and that again, Judge Baca refused to recuse himself from the case.

In late December 2019, according to the suit, Murray emailed then-DA Flores to address her concerns, and that between Dec. 30, 2019, and Feb. 19, 2020, she spoke to Flores, Clayton and Office Manager Mary Lou Umbarger about Judge Baca and the Yara cases. Murray ultimately requested to be removed from the cases, which she said made her “uncomfortable” and were “incredibly disheartening.”

Clayton came to Murray’s office on March 17, 2020, and notified her she had been “terminated, effective immediately,” according to the suit.

Murray alleges that after being fired, she attempted to obtain details from Flores, Clayton and Umbarger on why she was terminated. Umbarger emailed Murray to say her position with the DA’s office had been an “at will” position, and that such attorneys “serve at the pleasure of the district attorney,” according to the complaint. Murray attests that during her employment with the DA’s office she had never been formally disciplined.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Judge Baca to the state Court of Appeals in March. A spokesman for the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Judge Baca.

Contacted by phone Thursday, Clayton said his office couldn’t comment on “pending litigation or personnel matters.”

Clayton directed further questions to James Sullivan, the attorney representing the DA’s office. Sullivan said he had not yet received a copy of the complaint, but added that even if he had, he likely wouldn’t comment on the suit.

Murray could not be reached Thursday for comment. She is seeking lost, past and future pay and other damages in the lawsuit.