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Anatomy of a corruption case

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Two years ago this month, state District Judge Michael Murphy in Las Cruces was indicted by a grand jury on felony charges of demanding a bribe, bribery, criminal solicitation and intimidation of a witness.

Murphy allegedly told a lawyer in 2007 that she needed to make contributions to the Democratic Party if she wanted the party’s support for a gubernatorial appointment to a judgeship.

The money, Murphy allegedly said, should be in cash, placed in an envelope and given to businessman Edgar Lopez, who was close to then-Gov. Bill Richardson and would deliver the money to Richardson.

A fellow judge said Murphy, appointed to the bench in 2006 by Richardson, told him he gave $4,000 to the governor.

Several other judges, including a Supreme Court justice, allegedly knew as early as 2007 of Murphy’s comments about the need to make payments to Lopez for judgeships.

It was a sensational case, but it ended in Murphy pleading no contest last month to a misdemeanor charge of violating the ethical principles of public service. No others were ever charged.

Richardson said any suggestion that campaign donations influenced his judicial appointments was “outrageous and defamatory.” Lopez called the allegations “absurd.” We do know he was a major campaign contributor to Richardson and made recommendations on judicial appointments, although neither of those things is a crime.

In exchange for his no-contest plea, Murphy got the felony charges dismissed, a year of probation and 200 hours of community service. He cannot ever again hold public office and is banned from the courthouse where he once sat as a judge. But there was no jail, no fine, no admission of wrongdoing and no promise to cooperate with the prosecution.

Murphy previously had resigned from the bench and agreed to never again serve as a judge.

It’s clear that Murphy has suffered much, but how could a case with such serious allegations end with a plea – and not even a guilty one – to a single misdemeanor charge of violating the Governmental Conduct Act?

Richardson and other Democrats had long accused the prosecutor, state District Attorney Matt Chandler, of being on a political witch hunt. Chandler, a Republican from Clovis, ran for state attorney general in 2010 and may run again next year.

At the plea hearing, when Chandler outlined the bribery allegations against Murphy, the judge in the case sounded incredulous.

“If all this is true, what are we doing with this misdemeanor charge?” District Judge Leslie Smith asked.

Murphy’s attorney, Michael Stout, called his client’s plea a “face-saving deal for the prosecution” and accused Chandler of wrongly tarnishing the reputation of Murphy and the judiciary.

Stout said “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.”

We certainly have learned that Murphy was a foul-mouthed man who could be blunt and outrageous in his comments. He also liked to joke about Jews, gays and Mexicans.

Chandler rejects the notion that Murphy was merely a blowhard and not a crook.

“This case proved he is both,” he told me in a lengthy discussion about the Murphy case.

The investigation of Murphy began in 2009 when a fellow judge, also a Democrat, went to Susana Martinez, then district attorney in Las Cruces and now governor, about Murphy’s alleged comments about political contributions and judgeship appointments.

Because the case involved judges in her district, Martinez, a Republican, turned the case over to Chandler.

The prosecutor rejected any notion that the case was political or that he overreached in the indictment of Murphy. “Do I think it was a righteous case? Absolutely,” he said.

The prosecutor said the allegations against Murphy came from witnesses, including fellow judges.

“We don’t make the facts; we present them,” he said. “I think we acted as a diligent prosecutor would.”

Chandler noted that a grand jury, in bringing charges against Murphy, found there was probable cause to believe crimes had taken place. A judge also declined a defense motion to dismiss an additional bribery charge brought by Chandler’s office, again ruling there was probable cause to believe Murphy had acted illegally.

Chandler long insisted that the case against Murphy would stand up in court, and he said he still believes that a jury would have had “meaningful” deliberations on the charges if there had been a trial. Murphy’s bank records showed political contributions and cash withdrawals that could have been payments for his appointment, Chandler said.

So, why no trial?

Chandler said there had been unfavorable court rulings against witnesses and that Murphy may not have received jail time even if convicted of a felony.

He said the court suggested the prosecution enter “criminal mediation” to settle the case. Chandler said he had never heard of such a thing but did as suggested.

The prosecutor called the plea agreement with Murphy a “fair resolution” of the charges. The judge is a convicted criminal and no longer walking around the courthouse in a robe, Chandler said.

“The judiciary in Doña Ana County is much better than it was two years ago,” he said.

Chandler says he hasn’t decided whether he will run for state attorney general next year.

If he does, voters will get their say on whether the Murphy prosecution was a “righteous case,” as he says, or a politically motivated and overzealous prosecution by a politically ambitious man, as his critics say.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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