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AG candidates contrast themes of prosecutor versus protector

BIOSProtector or prosecutor?

New Mexico’s attorney general is both, but this year’s candidates for the job emphasize one aspect over another as they campaign for the Nov. 4 general election.

“As attorney general, every criminal will know Susan Riedel,” promises the Republican nominee in her television ad.

“As attorney general I’ll protect families across New Mexico,” Democratic candidate Hector Balderas pledges in his TV spot.

Riedel, a veteran prosecutor and former judge from Las Cruces, and Balderas, now the state auditor, are vying to succeed second-term Attorney General Gary King. He can’t run for attorney general again and is the Democratic candidate for governor.

The duties of the AG’s Office – which has about 180 employees and an $18 million budget – are wide-ranging.

Among them: representing the state and its agencies, prosecuting public officials, handling criminal appeals, protecting consumers, prosecuting Medicaid fraud and investigating Internet crimes against children.

Riedel says the office suffers from “a serious lack of leadership” and the attorney general needs to be more on top of what is happening there.

“I’m going to prosecute crime, defend our state and make sure all our rights are protected,” Riedel told the audience at a recent candidate forum.

Balderas says the attorney general must assess the greatest risks to New Mexicans in order to keep them safe.

He says he’ll make the office “a robust oversight agency, led by an independent watchdog” and a “top-tier law enforcement agency.”

Cases, controversy

Both candidates fault King’s handling of the ongoing Medicaid fraud investigation into the behavioral health agencies ousted last year by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

They criticize the slow pace of the probe and King’s refusal to release the audit that prompted the shake-up.

Riedel also points to the public corruption cases that withered during King’s tenure, including the prosecution of former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, against whom charges were eventually dismissed because too much time had passed.

“It’s one thing to indict a case. It’s another to make sure it gets done. … You’ve just got to stay on top of it,” Riedel said in an interview.

Balderas had his own tangle with King a few years ago, which ended up in court.

It began with an anonymous complaint to the Auditor’s Office hotline in 2008 that Balderas used a staffer as a babysitter on work time, made improper office equipment purchases and wrongly required workers to use a time clock.

The auditor contended the allegations were “completely frivolous,” but he forwarded them to the attorney general for review.

When the attorney general apparently broadened the inquiry and served Balderas with a grand jury subpoena for documents, the auditor’s office refused to comply, saying it wouldn’t let the attorney general “simply rummage through its files.”

According to Balderas, the attorney general abused his authority by requesting information related to other audit matters.

“My position was, we were protecting citizen hotline complaints related to ongoing audits,” he said.

No charges were brought against Balderas and the matter was resolved – but since court hearings were held behind closed doors and a judge ordered documents sealed because of grand jury secrecy, the details have never been public.

The episode has been fodder for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which launched a “Breaking Balderas” website last year in an early attack on his candidacy.

Riedel background

Riedel, 55, was asked to consider running for attorney general by her old friend, Gov. Martinez. Reidel has known Martinez since 1992 and worked with her as the chief deputy when Martinez was the DA in Las Cruces.

Martinez had appointed her to a district judgeship in 2011, but Riedel was defeated in the 2012 election by a Democrat and retired after that.

In 2013, the governor appointed Riedel to the newly created Public Defender Commission, causing a stir among defense attorneys and some lawmakers who claimed she didn’t qualify because she was a prosecutor. Riedel says her six months on the commission were “a great experience.”

Riedel’s 25-year career includes 14 years as chief deputy district attorney in Las Cruces, where she prosecuted high-profile cases including the Baby Brianna child abuse death and the murder of New Mexico State University student Carly Martinez.

“I’m a skilled, skilled lawyer,” she told the Journal.

Riedel said she always has had compassion for victims in the courtroom, but her husband’s death in 2004 in Arizona – in a highway crash caused by a drunken driver – made her understand just how difficult it can be for victims to grasp the unfolding legal process.

“Really what happens is you don’t listen well, at the beginning in particular, because you’re just distraught,” Riedel recalled.

Riedel brands Balderas a “career politician” and says a prosecutor should be attorney general.

“Experience is what matters here. You can’t take on an office that size and not have any idea how to supervise attorneys, how to handle criminal cases, what it’s like to be in a courtroom, what it is like to argue an appellate case,” she said.

Balderas background

Balderas counters that his experience as a Bernalillo County assistant district attorney, a special prosecutor, a certified fraud examiner and as state auditor qualifies him to be attorney general. He notes his “direct experience fighting fraud, waste and abuse.”

Balderas, 41, rose quickly to statewide office, returning from Albuquerque to his hometown of Wagon Mound to run for the state House in 2004 and ousting the Democratic incumbent. In the Legislature, he sponsored a bill expanding and toughening the state’s sex offender registration requirements.

In 2006, before his first term ended, the Democratic Party tapped him to replace its nominee for auditor, who withdrew after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Balderas was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010. In 2012 he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Balderas elevated the profile of the Auditor’s Office, establishing the hotline and creating a special investigations division.

Balderas made headlines with audits of the Jemez Mountain School District, New Mexico Finance Authority, the city of Sunland Park and the state Public Regulation Commission.

He wants to create a solicitor general’s office within the AG’s Office to tackle complex issues such as water and the border and develop strategies for dealing with related legal challenges, rather than simply reacting to litigation.

The attorney general also should push for a statewide public safety plan, rather than the current patchwork of emergency and communications networks, the candidate said.

The attorney general “has to be focused on its role as an oversight agency and properly hold governments accountable for their failures,” Balderas said.

“I truly do look at government through the eyes of its citizens,” the candidate said. “As AG, I won’t be an insider bureaucrat.”