By Etta Pettijohn
Scott Chandler, owner of Tierra Blanca Ranch (TBR) in Hillsboro, has confirmed a precedent-setting settlement has been reached in his defamation lawsuit against former Gov. Susana Martinez Political Consultant Jay McCleskey, and the now defunct Political Action Committee (PAC) Advance New Mexico Now.

Some media reported a settlement had been reached weeks ago, but according to Chandler those reports were premature, and on Nov. 1 he filed a motion to amend the lawsuit to add the former governor as a defendant, after her political consultant's testimony during a deposition implicated Martinez as being directly involved in setting up the PAC and distributing the untruthful fliers in an effort to thwart Chandler's candidacy for State Representative in District 32, which includes Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties.

The lawsuit alleges the defendants circulated two slanderous mailers, accusing him of child abuse and torture, to damage his chances of winning the 2016 Republican primary.

The District Court, and Court of Appeals, and Mexico Supreme Court denied certiorari in the defendant's motion to dismiss.

Three days later the PAC insurer, the Hartford, reached an agreement for a not-yet-disclosed sum.
Chandler's motion alleges McCleskey's testimony confirms Martinez and himself authorized the PAC to make and distribute the defamatory statements; and was consulted throughout the process.

BACKGROUND
Chandler operated the TBR High Country Youth Program, where troubled youth who had exhausted all court ordered efforts to cease criminal behavior were sent by their parents or the courts. Once they became legal adults, they could leave the program.

In 2013 a TBR employee had an auto accident which killed 18-year-old Bruce Staeger, whose parents placed him in the program. Staeger voluntarily stayed on as an employee after turning 18.

On Oct. 12, 2013, State Police and CYFD raided the ranch and when no one was found there, issued an Amber Alert for nine boys. The boys were with Chandler on a pre-planned outing, and were eventually sent to their parents.

At the time of the raid, Martinez told local and national media outlets, "Absolutely, there is belief that these kids have been abused."

Several national media covered the investigation, including "Rolling Stone" magazine, which used quotes from former ranch residents, and described incidents of heinous abuse of Staeger, although the report never mentioned Staeger had voluntarily asked to remain there as an employee after he turned 18.

Several young men who are former ranch residents also appeared on local media claiming the facility was instrumental in turning their lives around, and that they never witnessed any abuse.

Leading efforts to investigate the ranch were California attorney Steve Cowan, who signed waivers for his son Jonathan to be a part of the program. Cowan's son sided with the ranch, denied any abuse occurred, and asked to work on weekends there as an intern while attending New Mexico State University.

Shortly after the raid CYFD reached a civil settlement with TBR and no charges were ever filed against the Chandlers by local or state police. CYFD visited the ranch only once after the settlement, and signed a second settlement on Dec. 2, 2017.

Three lawsuits were filed against the ranch owners, including one from Staeger's mother and stepfather. Two of these cases were dismissed In the Seventh Judicial District Court in 2016, and one in 2014. Eventually all resulting cases were settled or dropped.

The Chandlers also settled a defamation case with three New Mexico State Police officers and defendants in Sixth Judicial District Court in 2019.

POLITICAL PRECEDENT
In response to Chandler's lawsuit, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on New Mexico's statute prohibiting strategic litigation against public participation (Anti-SLAPP) statute. The Anti-SLAPP statute addresses actions seeking money damages against a person for conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting in a quasi-judicial proceeding. The purpose of the statute is to prevent potential litigation from stymying free speech, and to prevent the unnecessary expense of litigation.

"Settling this case does not mean the merits of this case have not been tested. The merits have been tested by rulings from the District Court Judge, Court of Appeals and the NM Supreme Court, withstanding every test McCleskey and his attorneys attempted to use in trying to have this case dismissed," Chandler wrote in a statement following the settlement agreement.

"In essence, law was made and precedent was set to provide a warning to those who chose to cross the line using "scorched earth" tactics to win. Our case will not only serve as a warning, but, as a potential roadmap for others who find themselves, as we did in 2016, facing lies and unbelievable actions of unscrupulous individuals," said Chandler.

"The deposition goes on to show that former Governor Martinez saw and approved the defamatory mailers. As we have fought for in our other cases, this settlement once again proves the truth does matter, and is worth taking a stand for. This settlement also provides insurers affiliated with individuals and organizations who operate in this manner that there actually are lines that can be crossed and consequences for doing so."

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