SANTA FE – House Speaker Don Tripp said late Wednesday that he will create a special legislative panel to investigate the criminal charges against Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a move that marks the first step toward possible impeachment proceedings.
The House speaker, a Socorro Republican, did not specify who would be appointed to the House panel, but said it would be made up of either 8 or 10 members, with an equal number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
He also sent a letter to Attorney General Hector Balderas on Wednesday, asking that evidence from the case be made available to the committee.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations made by the attorney general against the secretary of state, I believe the appropriate and responsible next step for the House of Representatives is to begin the process of determining whether these charges have merit and rise to the level of impeachment,” Tripp said in a statement.
Duran, a second-term Republican, has faced pressure to resign since a slew of charges were filed last week related to her alleged conversion of campaign contributions to personal use, including gambling.
The Attorney General’s Office alleged 64 total violations in the criminal complaint and investigation, most of them 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 Although the amounts withdrawn at casinos run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the counts against her revolve around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.
Top-ranking House Democrats called earlier this week for impeachment proceedings against Duran to be launched, but Tripp said at the time the idea was premature.
In a Wednesday interview, he said the number of allegations against Duran prompted the need for a special committee to begin investigating whether the charges have merit and rise to the level of impeachment. He said he planned to talk today with House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, about the makeup of the panel and who should be appointed as its two co-chairmen.
“It’s really not prudent to convene the (full) Legislature until we really know what we’re dealing with,” Tripp told the Journal .
Egolf said Wednesday that he was glad the speaker had decided to proceed.
But he also said Duran should resign “to spare the state the time and cost of going through an investigation and possible impeachment.”
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 before the 30-day session that will begin in January 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 funding for the special committee is approved by top-ranking lawmakers at a Sept. 15 meeting of the Legislative Council, the panel could begin its work shortly thereafter, Tripp said.
He sent a letter Wednesday to Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, asking for her cooperation in adding funding and authorization for the committee to the Legislative Council meeting agenda.
Tripp also said the committee would most likely follow the procedures that were used in 2011, when the House was planning impeachment proceedings against Public Regulation Commission member Jerome Block, who then pleaded guilty to embezzlement and other crimes and resigned.
As such, the committee would likely hire a special counsel to collect and present evidence, and then would decide whether there was credible evidence to recommend impeachment.
Duran is scheduled to be arraigned 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.
Her attorney has said the secretary of state – a former state senator and Otero County clerk – is preparing to fight the charges levied by the Attorney General’s Office, calling them “sensational” and “misleading.”