LAS CRUCES – A divisive two-year-old bribery case that cast a pall over the Doña Ana County courthouse ended Thursday as former judge Michael Murphy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge that will keep him off the bench and out of public office for life.
Four felony charges were dropped as part of the plea deal.
District Judge Leslie Smith sentenced Murphy, 66, to 364 days of supervised probation, barred him from entering the county courthouse and ordered him to complete 200 hours of community service, essentially providing free legal assistance.
Murphy also is prohibited from seeking or accepting any appointment to public office, a condition similar to one he agreed to when he resigned as judge in February 2012 while facing a trial before the Judicial Standards Commission.
His attorney, Michael Stout, cast the plea agreement as a “face-saving deal for the prosecution” and added that while Murphy benefited from the dismissal of the felony charges, “The system did not work in this case.
“Judge Murphy’s career and reputation were damaged by a false prosecution, the reputation of the judiciary was wrongly tarnished, and the public paid a huge price to get to this point.”
Special prosecutor Matt Chandler of Clovis, who was assigned the case by Gov. Susana Martinez in the last days of her term as the Las Cruces district attorney, called the plea bargain “a good resolution for the citizens of Doña Ana County.”
Chandler said he believed that had he won a conviction on the felony bribery charges, Murphy likely would not have received any jail time anyway.
“Two years ago, Michael Murphy was serving in this very courthouse as a judge and was giving the judiciary a bad name and a black eye based upon his own actions and comments, and today he is disrobed, never to hold office again, and he’s a convicted criminal,” Chandler said following the hearing. “So I think it’s a good and fair resolution.”
Judge Smith appeared puzzled by the plea bargain.
When Chandler began explaining the basis of the misdemeanor charge, and making a case that Murphy had tried to solicit donations from prospective judicial candidates, Smith said: “If all this is true, what are we doing with this misdemeanor charge?”
Chandler did not specifically address why he chose to forego a felony trial, instead elaborating on Murphy’s alleged misconduct.
Murphy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of the Governmental Conduct Act, which calls upon public officials to “conduct themselves in a manner that justifies the confidence placed in them by the people, at all times maintaining the integrity and discharging ethically the high responsibilities of public office.”
The original felony charges stemmed from a 2007 conversation over lunch when Murphy allegedly told a lawyer, Beverly Singleman, who was interested in a judicial appointment by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, that she needed to make payments, or political contributions, to a local Democratic politico who was friends with the governor.
Stout said the felony charges arose from “innocent comments” Murphy made, while “the most damning facts against Judge Murphy were not crimes at all, but were instead boorish, ill-advised and impolitic comments made in private conversation.”
Earlier in the case, Murphy succeeded in getting a misdemeanor charge under Governmental Conduct Act dismissed.
Chandler said the current misdemeanor charge was based on off-color comments Murphy made during a conversation that Judge Lisa Schultz secretly recorded in December 2010 and from comments Murphy made to several courthouse employees that he paid $4,000 to gain his judicial appointment.
“Judge Murphy acknowledges that he did not live up to the expectations of his constituents with some of his language and he has accounted for that, but his conduct is far from felonious,” Stout said.
Murphy declined to speak to reporters about the plea bargain, but in a statement released by Stout he said:
“I am relieved that after two stressful years this false prosecution is over and that the charges have been dismissed. I apologize for my injudicious comments, but I hope that the system will improve from my experience.”
Schultz, whose concerns about Stout’s behavior launched the criminal investigation, declined to comment. She has filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging retaliation against her by county employees for her involvement in the Murphy case.
Schultz became a critical witness because, after hearing about the 2007 conversation, she secretly recorded a number of discussions with Murphy and other judges about her concerns that Murphy was essentially seeking bribes to increase the likelihood of judicial appointments.
While Murphy will not go to trial on the bribery charges, his judicial career was effectively undone by the case.
He agreed to resign in 2011 while a case was pending before the Judicial Standards Commission. That case was based on comments Schultz secretly recorded in which Murphy repeated several jokes about gays to Schultz, who is herself lesbian.
— This article appeared on page A01 of the Albuquerque Journal