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Accused secretary of state just two steps from governor’s chair

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – When Gov. Susana Martinez took an overnight trip to Mexico last weekend to attend the inauguration of the new governor of the state of Sonora, embattled New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran was just one step – or misstep – away from serving as acting governor.

A long-standing provision in the state constitution calls on the lieutenant governor to serve as acting governor whenever the governor leaves the state or is unable to serve. If the lieutenant governor is also out of state or unable to act as governor, that designation next falls to the secretary of state.

Lt. Gov. John Sanchez was, in fact, in New Mexico last weekend while Martinez was traveling out of state, his chief of staff Mark Van Dyke told the Journal.

But the situation has prompted discussion about how to avoid a potentially awkward scenario of Duran being acting governor while facing charges that she misused campaign contributions to cover personal spending at casinos.

“We expect the lieutenant governor to be in the state and serving as acting governor during any foreseeable travel that Governor Martinez may be taking out of state,” Van Dyke said in an email.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s spokesman Chris Sanchez said the Governor’s Office is making sure travel plans are communicated in advance.

“No matter the circumstance, we coordinate travel with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office ahead of out-of-state trips,” Sanchez said this week. “We will certainly be diligent about doing that during this period of time.”

Duran has filled in as New Mexico’s chief executive on at least three occasions during the past four-plus years, when both Martinez and Sanchez were out of state. All three of the elected officials are Republicans.

In March 2014, for instance, Martinez traveled to St. Louis to cheer on the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team and raise cash for her re-election campaign. At the time, Sanchez was in Washington, D.C., for a gathering of lieutenant governors.

Acting governors have all the power and authority as the actual governor, per the New Mexico Constitution. However, it’s rare for an acting governor to take any official actions while serving in the temporary role.

But, at least nationally, such acts are not unheard of. Former Idaho Lt. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed a 1987 bill that would have raised Idaho’s legal drinking age from 19 to 21 while the governor was out of state. After returning to the state, the governor signed a revived version of the bill.

Duran, who was first elected secretary of state in 2010 and re-elected last year, was charged last month with 64 violations – including fraud, money laundering and embezzlement – by Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office. The counts against her revolve around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.

She pleaded not guilty to the charges earlier this week, but has faced pressure to resign from office. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled to begin Oct. 30 in District Court in Santa Fe, according to online court records.

In addition, a special legislative committee tasked with investigating the charges against Duran and weighing possible impeachment is slated to hold its first meeting later this month at the state Capitol.

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