The political figure at the center of the Las Cruces judicial scandal was in regular contact with then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s office to offer his input on appointments to the bench in Doña Ana County, according to records obtained by the Journal.
Emails and a tape-recorded interview released to the Journal under the Inspection of Public Records Request show that, at the very least, real estate man Edgar Lopez believed he was the man to see if someone wanted to garner a judicial appointment in Doña Ana County.
Lopez emailed Richardson or his staff on at least a dozen occasions to provide local political background information on nominees, and, over the years Lopez, a Richardson fundraiser and transition team member, repeatedly asked Richardson or his staff for “five minutes” of the governor’s time for unspecified reasons.
In one email, he reminded the governor that the nominee he was touting provided the Richardson campaign with free buses for political events.
Lopez was never charged with a crime in the bribery case brought by a special prosecutor, Clovis District Attorney Matt Chandler. However, it was the suggestion by then-District Judge Mike Murphy that a potential judicial nominee needed to make contributions to Richardson through Lopez that led to a wider investigation and ultimately a grand jury indictment on charges of bribery and witness intimidation against Murphy.
When the allegations became public, Richardson called the allegations “outrageous and defamatory” and defended his record on judicial appointments.
Lopez said in a telephone interview last week that the emails were just “personal recommendations” and that Richardson “made the decisions based on all the information he received.”
“The final decision was the governor’s and he made them,” Lopez said.
Lopez has maintained that there was no connection between campaign contributions and judicial appointments. He has also said he never accepted cash contributions for Richardson.
The potential nominee, Las Cruces attorney Beverly Singleman, told District Judge Lisa Schultz about Murphy’s advice that she make cash contributions to Lopez on a weekly basis. Schultz confronted Murphy about the allegations and later taped conversations with him in which he discussed making political contributions to get judicial appointments.
Schultz was reluctant to lodge a complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission, because it was controlled by Richardson appointees, and eventually brought the allegations to then-Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez. She, in turn, asked Chandler to be special prosecutor.
In an agreement with the Judicial Standards Commission, Murphy resigned from the bench last year for making off-color, anti-semitic and anti-gay remarks that were taped by Schultz in subsequent conversations between the two.
After the scandal came to light, the state Supreme Court tightened rules on the types of political activity judges were allowed to do, including banning direct solicitations of campaign donations for political parties or other candidates.
Last month, Murphy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Governmental Conduct Act.
Felony charges were dropped, but Murphy is barred from seeking public office and banned from the courthouse in Las Cruces where he once served as a judge.
Murphy’s attorney, Michael Stout of Las Cruces, told reporters that Murphy’s plea showed there was no scandal and that Chandler had no case.
In addition to the public office and courthouse bans, Murphy was sentenced to do 200 hours of community service.
Chandler 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.
The man to see
A member of Richardson’s transition team for his first term, Lopez was appointed by Richardson to the Border Authority and to various judicial nominating committees as the governor’s representative.
In one email, Lopez recommended a nominee for magistrate court and disparaged the reputations of other nominees noting the husband of a female applicant had to be removed from a county position because of a local scandal.
“This is what we were trying to avoid,” Lopez wrote Richardson in 2006 —while reminding Richardson that his Las Cruces re-election campaign office had to be moved into Lopez’s office because the other location had closed.
The appointment recommendations were usually accompanied by detailed reasons why Richardson should or should not appoint a nominee to the bench.
Lopez supported James T. Martin over Murphy for district judge and Martin, whose father had served as a District Judge, received the appointment in 2005. Lopez wrote to Richardson’s staff that Martin, a former federal prosecutor, wasn’t involved in politics, but Martin’s wife had become active in local Democratic Party functions.
When interviewed by Chandler’s investigators, Lopez said he supported Martin over Murphy because he knew Martin and Martin’s father — calling it a “legacy appointment.”
Lopez also said Murphy never came to see him — “to pay homage” — until after Martin had been selected, according to a report written by the investigators.
Martin was present at the lunch where Murphy allegedly told Singleman that she needed to make contributions to Richardson through cash payments to Lopez if she was really interested in a judicial appointment.
That lunch was the genesis of the criminal investigation. Martin was never charged with any crime although he was called to the grand jury investigating whether there was a pay to play scheme in judicial appointments.
Martin asserted his Fifth Amendment right and declined to testify. Murphy’s attorney argued that the prosecution had manipulated the situation forcing Martin to decline to testify.
During the same interview with Chandler’s investigators, Lopez said he sometimes received money for the Dennis Chavez Club of the local Democratic Party from people seeking to become active in the political party including judicial nominees.
He told the investigators that the political influence in Doña Ana County in statewide political races was based on the number of votes the local party could produce and not money. In October 2007, Lopez strongly supported the appointment of Las Cruces District Judge Robert Robles to the Court of Appeals, telling Richardson that Robles had wide political support, was the most experienced judge among the potential nominees, and he “will not embarrass you.”
Robles, who served as a district judge for 17 years in Las Cruces, was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Richardson in 2008 and won election in 2010.
But Robles failed to fulfill Lopez’s final promise when in 2011 he was arrested for drunken driving in Albuquerque and retired from the bench after pleading guilty.
And Richardson didn’t always follow Lopez’s advice.
For instance, the emails and law enforcement interview show Lopez was no fan of former legislator and county manager Fernando Macias.
Lopez wrote a Richardson aide that he considered Macias arrogant and controversial and recommended another possible candidate.
Richardson eventually appointed Macias to the district court bench.