The Torrance County Commission voted this week to ask the District Attorney to investigate possible malfeasance in office by its County Clerk, seeking to remove her from office, five weeks before the November 8 election she oversees.
Allegations of drug use and illegal activity—along with allegations of malfeasance in office—are being levied by Torrance County Manager Janice Barela against County Clerk Yvonne Otero.
The county’s agenda for its next commission meeting October 12 includes an action item to formally censure the clerk.
The County Manager sent an email to the Secretary of State’s office September 29, calling the Clerk’s procedures and the upcoming election’s integrity into question after Otero pre-signed blank certification forms for the voting machines.
Ordinarily, certification of voting machines—a public process which can be witnessed by any members of the public who may want to—is a time-consuming process in which a technician checks each machine, one by one, to ensure that everything is working properly.
The checklist the technician goes through includes things like checking the time and date are properly set and running test sets of data, to seals placed on the machines and identified by number.
Barela contacted the Secretary of State’s office with her concerns on September 29, but said October 3 that she had not received a written response yet.
“I have serious concerns regarding the integrity and process of the certification of the ballot tabulators that is currently taking place in Torrance County,” Barela wrote. “Torrance County Clerk Yvonne Otero is not present, yet she pre-signed all certificates ahead of time. … What is the purpose of the County Clerk signing and affixing the County Seal if not to attest to the fact that this certification process had her oversight and that she confirms that she witnessed the process, that each item on the checklist was done, that the technician who did the work was the one who signed the certificate.”
Barela goes on to say in the email that Otero was not present for the process but Deputy Clerk Sylvia Chavez was. “I do not understand why the certificates were pre-signed by Clerk Otero and not left blank for Deputy Chavez to sign after she witnessed the process and attested to the technician’s signature.”
The Deputy Clerk is empowered to carry out any of the duties of the County Clerk in the Clerk’s absence.
A special meeting of the county commission was held October 3, at which Barela gave a report outlining both the allegations of workplace misconduct against Otero and her allegation of malfeasance. She stated that if Otero had been an employee rather than an elected official, she would be working toward her termination.
Commission chair Ryan Schwebach noted that the county has no authority to fire Otero, an elected official.
He said the two duties before the county are to ensure a safe workplace for employees and integrity of the election, adding, “In light of what we’ve seen, I’d have a hard time saying [we’d have] a fair election under this Clerk.”
Schwebach suggested she resign.
Barela went on to add that the Deputy Clerk said she was directed by Otero not to certify the machines.
After Chavez sent an email of her own to the Secretary of State’s office, the county got a reply, Barela said. All of the certifications that had been completed “had to be redone,” she said. The county asked for and got a time waiver on finishing the certification process.
The county’s attorney outlined three options; the commission voted unanimously to “authorize Janice Barela to move forward” with making a formal request to the District Attorney’s office “to look at it and start proceedings.”
Employees in the office will be allowed to work remotely “in the event they feel it necessary,” Barela said, noting that the complaint was from an employee who had come forward.
“How does that look for the upcoming election?” Schwebach asked.
Barela said she knows election workers are “busy every day” this close to an election.
“Can we pull this election off in a little more than a month teleworking?” asked Commissioner Scott McCall.
Barela said the county has the obligation to provide personnel to carry out its duties.
Schwebach said she should also look at hiring extra help if needed to get the election done.
In a separate issue, a complaint from within the department led to an internal investigation “centered on allegations of use of narcotics while on duty, illegal possession of prescription narcotics and abuse/misuse of authority” related to interactions with that employee, according to the report on that investigation.
That complaint in turn led to an investigation by Jason Cogdill of Universal Investigation Services and interviews of department employees on September 7 followed by an Investigation Report issued September 14.
The report says Universal was hired by Torrance County August 31 to look into issues that were alleged to have been ongoing since October 2021. “The complaint can be summarized in that [a department employee] felt obligated to provide Otero with prescription medication even though she knew it was illegal, and if she did not, believed she would lose her job given Otero’s position of authority above her,” the report says. “[The employee] also alleges the inappropriate behavior by Otero of shooting her with nerf darts, using a taser to wake her up, having sex in her office, and the comments and jokes made by Otero that were sexual in nature as well as Otero’s punching of a door while at the office.”
The investigation report, through interviews with all but one of the people working in the Torrance County Clerk’s office, paints a picture of casual talk about drug use, allowing password access to a county laptop to the Clerk’s brother, a possible affair with a delivery driver, and setting off a Taser near the ear of the person who made the complaint.
From the report: “I asked [Otero] specifically about the allegation of cocaine use while at work, and she admitted she does use Cocaine for about six (6) years but has never used it at the office.”
The report found evidence that substantiated allegations of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, and substantiated allegations of workplace violence due to Otero’s use of the Taser to wake up an employee.
“There was no testimony that Otero used drugs at work, but the witnesses suspected she was under the influence,” the report says, noting that without evidence the claim is unsubstantiated.
Also unsubstantiated was the request for the employee to procure prescription drugs for the Clerk because “there is no evidence that Otero threatened [the employee’s] employment if she could not produce the narcotics.”
Likewise unsubstantiated was the allegation of sexual relations at the office. “No one ever saw them having sex at the office, and statements and noises alone, do not necessarily prove sex was occurring, therefore this allegation against Otero is UNSUBSTANTIATED,” the report says.
Regardless of whether Otero picks up the broad hints of the commission and resigns, or continues in office, any proceedings could impact the election process—made up of detailed procedures replete with deadlines, legal requirements, multiple layers of verification, official certifications and more.
Torrance County has around 9,000 registered voters and 11 polling locations, plus those at the Clerk’s office.
Otero was present at the October 3 meeting, but declined to comment when offered the opportunity to do so, citing advice of counsel.