SANTA FE, N.M. — Criminal charges against former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron were dismissed by a state district judge late Wednesday after he found her defense had been impaired by delays that weighed heavily against the prosecution.
Judge Reed Sheppard, the presiding criminal judge in the 2nd Judicial District and the eighth judge assigned to the case, said Vigil-Giron “did nothing to cause this delay,” other than one motion to disqualify the Attorney General’s Office.
She was indicted in August 2009. While the case was pending, a key defense witness, retired Elections Bureau Chief Hoyt Clifton, died.
Vigil-Giron said in a prepared statement that she feels “vindicated by Judge Sheppard’s courageous ruling” and intends to be back in the public arena after years of persecution.
“She has steadfastly requested her day in court because she was confident that there was not a shred of real evidence against her,” said the statement released by her attorney, Bob Gorence. “For 3 1/2 years, Rebecca was persecuted without the opportunity to clear her good name in a trial. She plans to return to public life and to serve her state again in the near future.” Gorence said Vigil-Giron was out of town, but was very emotional when informed of the decision.
A prosecutor in the case said Wednesday he was considering an appeal.
Vigil-Giron and three co-defendants, Elizabeth and Joe Kupfer of Rio Rancho and Armando Gutierrez of Corpus Christi, Texas, were charged in 2009 in a public corruption case with some 50 counts each, including conspiracy, fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and soliciting or paying a kickback.
The charges stem from a series of contracts worth more than $6 million that Vigil-Giron negotiated with Gutierrez to produce commercials using federal money from the Help America Vote Act. Joe Kupfer was a consultant to Gutierrez.
The state case against the co-defendants is not affected by Sheppard’s ruling. A separate case against the Kupfers and Gutierrez on related federal charges is also pending, although the Kupfers were convicted of tax evasion — counts severed from the rest of the indictment — at a trial earlier this year.
Gorence asked for dismissal of charges soon after the indictment was filed, contending the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which was handling the case, could not be impartial. He argued there were inherent conflicts in having the AG’s Office prosecute the case because of its role as in-house counsel to the secretary of state, including advising Vigil-Giron on the Help America Vote Act contracts. Gorence wrote Attorney General Gary King before filing the motion to ask that the office recuse.
Eventually, then-presiding criminal Judge Albert “Pat” Murdoch disqualified King’s office, not because of any actual conflict of interest but because of the appearance of a conflict.
But after Murdoch retired on July 29, 2011, it took another six months before the case got to Sheppard in January of this year.
Meanwhile, Gorence had filed three motions seeking dismissal because of speedy trial concerns and claiming his client had been prejudiced as a result of the delays.
Co-defendants had filed dozens of other motions, and in February 2012, the new prosecutors on the case filed 30 requests for hearings that would require three full weeks to hear, Sheppard’s ruling said.
Vigil-Giron testified at an evidentiary hearing last month about the harm because of the delays. She said she had suffered extreme stress and developed health problems such as hypertension as a result, the opinion noted. She was unable to find a job despite submitting more than 150 applications, and unemployment benefits were exhausted at the end of 2011.
Joseph CampBell, the prosecutor hired under a contract four months after the attorney general was disqualified, said he was in Santa Fe and only got the opinion shortly before the close of business.
“I have not read the opinion and order yet. An appeal is something that I’m definitely considering. It’s something we have to look at,” he said.