A veteran government administrator and lawyer with ties to top New Mexico Democrats is the new head of the public corruption unit in the office of state attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gary King.
James Noel, of Corrales, was hired in mid-May as director of the Government Accountability Division, which was created by King after his election as AG in 2006.
Noel, whose annual salary is about $94,000, also is serving as interim director of the AG’s Prosecutions Division.
King said in a telephone interview that Noel has good administrative skills and brought professionalism to the Judicial Standards Commission.
Noel is a former executive director and general counsel of the Judicial Standards Commission, which looks into misconduct allegations against judges and makes disciplinary recommendations to the state Supreme Court.
Under Gov. Bill Richardson, who left office at the end of 2010, he served as deputy secretary, then secretary of the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources.
More recently, Noel worked as chief legal counsel in the office of state Auditor Hector Balderas, the Democratic nominee in the November general election to succeed King as attorney general.
Noel is married to Amanda Cooper, the daughter of Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Cooper managed Udall’s election campaign in 2008 and Richardson’s re-election effort in 2006. She also oversaw Richardson’s political committee Moving America Forward and was finance director for his presidential run in 2008.
In 2008, while Udall was running for election to the Senate, then-Secretary of State Mary Herrera, a Democrat, named Noel director of the Bureau of Elections. Republicans complained the appointment represented a conflict of interest for Noel, and he later decided against taking the job.
King said Cooper isn’t involved in his campaign against Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
The attorney general created the Government Accountability Division shortly after taking office in 2007. Its job is to evaluate, investigate and prosecute cases of public corruption.
The unit currently has three lawyers – including Noel – three special agents and two financial auditors.
Noel said that at the Judicial Standards Commission and later at the Auditor’s Office, he worked to hold public officials accountable for their actions. The new job, he said, “fits very closely with a lot of the work I have done.”
Noel said his work at the Judicial Standards Commission included prosecuting judges for alleged misconduct before the commission and later appearing before the Supreme Court in disciplinary matters.
Noel said his work at the AG’s Office would be nonpartisan.
King’s office has a mixed record when it comes to public corruption prosecutions.
In a major case involving a state housing authority, the agency’s former chief pleaded no contest to misdemeanors in a deal with the AG, and charges against three others were dismissed by King’s office.
A judge dismissed another major case involving former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (now Rebecca D. Vigil) and three others, saying their rights to speedy trials had been violated. The judge cited delays in the case caused by another judge and King’s office.
King said he has learned that public corruption cases are more difficult to prosecute than average criminal cases in part because the defendants are often well-liked, have significant personal financial resources and are skilled in news media relations.
The attorney general said he wants the Government Accountability Division to be more active in preventing public corruption. One way it does that, he said, is through training for officials on compliance with the Governmental Conduct Act.
The Governmental Conduct Act, which sets rules for public service and civil and criminal penalties for officials who violate them, was extended in 2011 to local officials and employees.
King spearheaded the expansion of the law, which previously had just covered state officials and employees.
Noel has served on state campaign finance and ethics task forces, and he said the expansion of the Governmental Conduct Act grew out of the recommendations of one of those task forces.
As head of the Government Accountability Division, Noel replaces Chris Lackmann, who was fired in April by King.
King has said the dismissal had nothing to do with Lackmann’s complaint to a district attorney that King had violated the Governmental Conduct Act by asking him for personal contact information, which Lackmann said was later used by King’s gubernatorial campaign to solicit a political donation.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.