SANTA FE – Embattled New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran appears to be bracing for a potentially lengthy court battle, as she entered a not guilty plea Tuesday to charges of fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and other crimes for allegedly using campaign contributions to cover personal spending at casinos.
She was released Tuesday on her own recognizance, but the judge imposed conditions of release that include directions not to leave the state for work duties without the court’s approval and not to enter gambling establishments.
Meanwhile, a top-ranking staffer in the Secretary of State’s Office said Duran made an appearance in her office later Tuesday – after two-plus weeks of staying away from the job – and plans to be back at work next week.
Also on Tuesday, the Legislative Council approved spending up to $250,000 to fund a special committee to investigate the charges against Duran and make recommendations on her possible impeachment.
Duran was largely stoic during her 30-minute appearance before District Judge Glenn Ellington in Santa Fe. She did not answer reporters’ questions while leaving the courthouse through a side exit, and her husband at one point pushed away a television reporter’s microphone.
During the hearing, Duran’s attorney raised several technical complaints about the charges filed against Duran, including whether at least one of the charges – an identity theft charge alleged to have occurred in 2010 – might violate the state’s statute of limitations. The judge rejected motions to dismiss part or all of the case, though more attempts are expected to be made in coming weeks.
“She’s not been convicted of any offenses,” said Duran’s attorney, Erlinda Johnson. “As she sits today, she is an elected official.”
The hearing was Duran’s first court appearance since being charged last month with 64 violations by Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office. Although the amounts withdrawn at eight different casinos run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the counts against her revolve around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.
Ellington denied a request from Assistant Attorney General Joseph Spindle that Duran be barred from having direct access to public funds while she is awaiting trial.
Before Tuesday, Duran had not showed up for work at the Secretary of State’s Office – adjacent to the state Capitol in Santa Fe – since the charges were filed against her Aug. 28. During her Tuesday visit to the office, chief of staff Ken Ortiz said Duran met with top-level staffers about several upcoming projects related to the 2016 election cycle.
The case against Duran has prompted calls for more oversight of the state’s campaign finance system and Duran herself has faced pressure to resign, with Gov. Susana Martinez saying Duran should step down if the charges against her are true.
The secretary of state earns an $85,000-a-year salary and is in charge of enforcing New Mexico’s campaign laws and overseeing elections. Duran, a Tularosa resident and former state senator, was first elected secretary of state in 2010, vowing to restore public confidence in an office beset in recent years by allegations of corruption and improprieties. Duran was re-elected last year with nearly 52 percent of the statewide vote.
University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said Tuesday the Duran case appears to differ from other recent high-profile New Mexico public corruption cases, in part because Duran is not accused of misusing taxpayer funds.
But Atkeson also said the case could raise concerns about how the day-to-day operations of the Secretary of State’s Office will be managed, asking, “How can you run your office with all this going on?”
The next court hearing in the Duran case is set for Oct. 23. A preliminary hearing could then be held by mid-November, though Duran’s attorney asked the judge to allow the defense more time to prepare.
An Attorney General’s Office lawyer said Tuesday there are more than 20 witnesses lined up for the preliminary hearing. A spokesman for the office declined additional comment, but said a witness list will be filed with the court.