By Darrell Todd Maurina
Salespeople in 16 area businesses — four in Clovis, three in Portales, two in San Jon, two in Logan, one in Nara Visa, three in Clayton and one in Elida — face misdemeanor charges and up to a $1,000 fine for selling tobacco last week to a 17-year-old minor working as part of a tobacco sting operation.
The businesses face additional administrative penalties from the state health department.
The sting, conducted last week by the state Department of Public Safety Special Investigations Division, involved a 17-year-old female attempting to purchase tobacco products, according to Special Agent D. Ledezma-Pinon.
Ledezma-Pinon said that of the 94 establishments in Broadview, Clayton, Clovis, Elida, Logan, Nara Visa, Portales, San Jon and Texico visited by the undercover teen, 16 clerks sold tobacco to the minor, some even after checking the teen’s ID.
“Total compliance in some areas is not where it should be,” she said.
Clerks or assistant managers at most locations receiving citations either declined comment or forwarded inquiries to corporate offices.
Petty misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $1,000, probation and community service, she said.
One business owner, Warren Nuckols Jr. of Clovis Quik Stop, said he plans to fight the charges on grounds of entrapment.
According to Nuckols, an additional person was in the store watching the minor while she made the tobacco purchase after the business was closed for the day. Nuckols said he was distracted by the second person, who turned out to be an undercover agent.
“We don’t knowingly sell to minors,” Nuckols said. “I think I’ve got a good case to at least get it reduced to a warning. Usually the judge listens to both sides and makes a fair decision, and that’s all I can ask for.”
The marketing director at Allsup’s corporate offices in Clovis — whose chain accounted for five of the eight citations — said corporate policy is not to comment on the sting operations.
A man at the Portales Wal-Mart who identified himself as “the manager who makes that decision” on speaking to the media refused to identify himself further and hung up when asked for comment.
Managers at one store said they were unaware of the incident and were not certain their store was involved.
Ledezma-Pinon said her work benefits the community by getting the message out that underage tobacco sales won’t be tolerated.
“All the managers of all the stores want their stores to be in compliance,” Ledezma-Pinon said. “They will listen to their clerk, but they will ask for my side of the story, and they will ask what they can do to fix it.”
Ledezma-Pinon said her department offers programs to help stores train their clerks not to make underage sales and noted that half of the salespeople who asked for identification still sold tobacco to underage smokers.
“That’s an ongoing issue; they look at it but they don’t read the birth date,” she said. “All of these minors we use have the newest New Mexico drivers license issued. It says they are under 18 in red and under 21 in red. If they would just take the time to read it, they would see it.”
Ledezma said the sting is part of an ongoing operation done periodically throughout the year, and is funded by a grant from the Department of Health.