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Attorney General King tries to weather setbacks

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For a man facing potential do or die when it comes to his political life, the last month has been rocky.

The man is Gary King, former six-term member of the state House of Representatives, current two-term state attorney general and candidate in the June primary election for the Democratic nomination for governor, a job his father was elected to three times.

In March, King finished last among five gubernatorial candidates in delegate voting at the Democratic Party’s pre-primary convention. He dismissed the outcome as a vote of party bosses, and a later poll of the party’s rank and file by a Democratic-leaning organization found King comfortably ahead of his rivals for the gubernatorial nomination.

Last week, we learned that King’s chief public corruption lawyer alleged King had wrongfully asked him last August for personal information so he could be solicited for money for King’s campaign.

King fired the lawyer, Chris Lackmann, effective today, but said his dismissal had nothing to do with Lackmann’s complaint to a state district attorney about the request for personal information.

King said he had done nothing wrong because Lackmann had expressed interest in supporting his campaign, and he noted that DA Kari Brandenburg in Albuquerque declined to pursue the matter.

The latest blow to King came this week with the Attorney General’s Office throwing in the towel in one of the biggest public corruption cases brought during King’s tenure as AG.

The AG’s Office on Monday dismissed charges against the remaining three defendants in the Region III Housing Authority case. Former Democratic state Rep. Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos, who headed the authority, previously had pleaded no contest to four misdemeanors in a deal with the AG’s Office.

The Albuquerque-based government housing agency collapsed in 2006 after defaulting on repayment of $5 million in bonds it sold to the State Investment Council to purchase and renovate homes for low-income buyers.

An audit later found the authority had misspent money on retirement benefits, salaries, a $300,000 loan to Gallegos, liquor and travel. The agency also had sold homes to authority insiders and let a state judge and a top aide to a powerful state legislator live rent-free in Region III houses.

Gallegos, two former authority lawyers and a former authority accountant were indicted in 2009. Gallegos entered his no contest pleas in December and received one year of probation. The others denied guilt. One was represented by Sam Bregman, the state Democratic Party chairman.

In explaining the dismissal of charges against the remaining defendants, David Pederson, the AG’s general counsel, said the cases had grown “stale.”

Two witnesses had died, and others had grown uncertain of their recollections of events, Pederson said.

So, why couldn’t the AG’s Office get the cases to trial before they grew stale?

Pederson said there were delays caused by health issues with one defendant, battles with the defense over evidence production, limitations of judges’ schedules and complications caused by having multiple defendants.

“It was a tough case to orchestrate,” Pederson said.

The AG’s Office made repeated requests for trial dates to be set, but Pederson said there has been no attempt to analyze the cases to determine whether the government – the AG’s Office and the courts – or the defense was responsible for most of the delays.

Lackmann, the lawyer fired by King, was the chief prosecutor in the Region III cases, but Pederson said his dismissal had nothing to with the decision to close the cases.

In a telephone interview Thursday, King repeated what Pederson had said previously: The AG’s Office had an ethical obligation to dismiss the charges because it no longer believed it could win convictions at trial.

For King, it was the second major corruption case brought by his office to end without making it to trial.

Last November, a judge dismissed charges against former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (now Rebecca D. Vigil), who was indicted along with three others in 2009 on charges related to the alleged embezzlement of federal money meant for voter education.

District Judge Reed Sheppard in Albuquerque, in dismissing the charges, found Vigil-Giron’s speedy-trial rights were violated. She had pleaded not guilty.

Sheppard noted that it took a previous judge in the case 18 months to hold a hearing on a defense motion, and that it took the AG’s Office four months to get a special prosecutor in place after the office was disqualified from proceeding further as prosecutor.

The AG’s Office had provided legal advice to Vigil-Giron while she was in office on the use of some federal voter education funds, and the AG’s Office was removed as prosecutor by a state district judge because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Charges against Vigil-Giron’s co-defendants also were dismissed, but special prosecutor Joseph E. CampBell is seeking reinstatement against all defendants in an appeal to the state Court of Appeals.

In the interview Thursday, King acknowledged what he called a challenging month.

On the upside, the attorney general said, he is appealing a new rule on copper mines and groundwater pollution, defending his regulation requiring motor vehicle dealers to inspect vehicles and disclose damage prior to sales, investigating police shootings in Albuquerque and working with Mexico to combat criminal organizations.

As for his gubernatorial campaign, he pointed to a poll released in March showing he leads the primary race by nearly 20 points and is within striking distance of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who is seeking a second term.

King said the job of his campaign is to present a complete picture of what he has done as attorney general.

“There are always ups and downs with being someone like the attorney general,” he said. “Every day, everybody in my agency does a good job. … The results come as they do.”

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 abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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