Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran faced escalating pressure Monday to resign, as a slew of criminal charges related to her alleged use of campaign contributions to pay for personal expenses, including gambling debt, threatened to put an end to a nearly 30-year run in elected office.
Top-ranking House Democrats said they were prepared to take the first steps in a possible impeachment effort if Duran did not resign, while Republican lawmakers also voiced concern about the seriousness of the charges leveled against Duran.
House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, called the impeachment talk premature but said Duran’s alleged withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of dollars at casinos around the state raised concern about a possible gambling addiction, calling the situation a “personal tragedy.”
“I’m confident the secretary of state will take personal responsibility for any mistakes she made,” Tripp told the Journal.
However, Duran’s attorney said late Monday that the secretary of state is preparing to fight the charges.
“Let there be no doubt that Ms. Duran will plead not guilty to the attorney general’s sensational and misleading charges and will vigorously fight this selective prosecution,” Duran’s attorney, Erlinda Johnson, wrote in an email. Duran, who in 2010 became the first Republican elected New Mexico secretary of state in 80 years, was charged last week in state District Court with fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and other crimes.
Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, alleged 64 total violations in the criminal complaint and investigation, all dating back to 2013 and 2014.
Although the amounts withdrawn at casinos run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the counts against her revolve around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.
Specifically, the Attorney General’s Office alleged that Duran illegally shifted money between her campaign and personal bank accounts and withdrew sums from eight casinos.
Duran was not at work Monday at the Secretary of State’s Office, next to the state Capitol, and her chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, said it was unclear whether she would take a leave of absence from the $85,000-a-year job.
But Ortiz also said the office, which oversees state elections, maintains corporate filings and records and enforces campaign laws, would not be affected by Duran’s legal situation.
“Business as usual is going on at our office,” Ortiz said.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s Office remained tight-lipped about the case against Duran, with a spokesman saying, “The office of the Attorney General is focused on preparing for the preliminary hearing in this matter. We do not have comment beyond the information that has been filed with the court.”
Duran’s initial appearance is scheduled for Sept. 15 before Santa Fe District Judge Glenn Ellington, who will schedule a preliminary hearing to determine which, if any, criminal charges Duran will face at trial.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called the charges against Duran “deeply disturbing and incredibly serious” and said Monday that he had reached out to House Speaker Tripp to discuss the impeachment process.
“While we hope that Secretary Duran will choose to leave office, we in the House must be prepared to proceed in the event she does not,” Egolf said.
He also said the quantity of evidence and specifics detailed in the Attorney General’s Office complaint made quick action necessary, while adding that the impeachment proceedings – which could cost the state up to $1 million – could happen concurrently with the criminal case against Duran.
Impeachment proceedings are rare, but not unheard-of, in New Mexico.
Most recently, then-Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. struck a plea deal and resigned from office in 2011 while facing impeachment proceedings. Then-state Treasurer Robert Vigil resigned in 2005, a month after he was arrested and charged with extortion in a federal investigation into an alleged kickback scheme involving state investments.
Under the state Constitution, the impeachment of a public official must start in the House of Representatives. If a majority of elected members of the 70-member House vote for impeachment, it’s then up to the Senate to hold a formal trial on the matter.
From a practical standpoint, launching the impeachment process now would require Gov. Susana Martinez to call a special session of the Legislature or for lawmakers to call themselves back to the Roundhouse for an extraordinary session.
If Duran were to resign or be forced from office, it would be up to Martinez to name a replacement. An election to fill the remaining two years of Duran’s term would then be held in November 2016.
Duran, 59, defeated Democratic incumbent Mary Herrera in 2010 to become New Mexico’s secretary of state, vowing to restore public trust and confidence in the office.
She won re-election to a second four-year term last year, defeating Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County clerk, in the general election.
Before being elected secretary of state, Duran, a Tularosa native, served for 18 years in the state Senate. She began her career as a voting machine technician in Otero County and was county clerk from 1989 through 1992 before becoming a member of the Legislature.
During last year’s re-election campaign, Duran said she had put the oft-troubled office back on track and touted her administration’s effort to update the state’s voter rolls.
She came under fire, however, from some Democratic lawmakers and voting advocacy groups during her first term that claimed she politicized the issue of voter fraud. A review of 64,000 irregularities in the state’s voter files led to few clear-cut cases of voter fraud and Duran having to scale back statements about illegal voting.
In addition, Duran clashed with both Balderas and his predecessor, fellow Democrat Gary King, over campaign finance matters.
Last year, she reversed course on her office’s initial finding that King had violated the state law governing campaign donation limits. One of the allegations Duran is now facing is that she misreported at least one of her own contributions to make it appear she had not surpassed the maximum allowable amount.