SANTA FE – Facing a barrage of criminal charges and the looming threat of impeachment, Dianna Duran resigned as New Mexico’s secretary of state early Friday and then pleaded guilty to reduced charges that included embezzling political contributions and violating several of the campaign finance laws she was elected – and re-elected – to enforce.
Duran, 60, told reporters after entering her guilty plea she made poor personal financial decisions, but insisted she had done a “tremendous” job as secretary of state for the past four-plus years.
“I want it to be completely clear to all New Mexicans that at no time did I ever do anything in my official capacity as secretary of state that would jeopardize the integrity of the office,” Duran said outside the 1st Judicial District courthouse in Santa Fe. “Moreover, I want to make it abundantly clear to all New Mexicans that I never improperly used taxpayer resources, including money.”
Duran was accused by the Attorney General’s Office in August of using campaign money to cover gambling expenses at casinos across the state.
Under the plea deal entered into by Duran and the AG’s Office, Duran agreed to plead guilty to six of the 65 criminal counts she was facing – two felony charges and four misdemeanors. The rest were dismissed.
As a convicted felon, Duran would be barred from voting, but could end up avoiding jail time at sentencing, as the AG’s Office recommended a suspended sentence with five years of supervised probation. In addition, Duran will not face a potential fine aimed at her accrued pension benefits, as the plea deal precludes the application of a 2012 public corruption law.
Attorney General Hector Balderas pointed out the deal also bars Duran from having access to public funds and requires her to pay back a total of up to $14,000 to political donors. Much of that money was used by Duran to cover personal spending at casinos around the state, according to charging documents.
“After today, citizens can be confident that Dianna Duran will no longer have supervisory control of public funds or the reporting process within the Secretary of State’s Office,” Balderas said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this resolution will begin to rebuild the public trust and compel the new leadership to improve oversight and compliance in our campaign finance system and electoral process.”
Other conditions in the plea deal would require Duran to seek treatment for possible gambling addiction, depending on a probation officer’s recommendation, and prohibit her from entering casinos or other gambling establishments. Duran sidestepped questions Friday about whether she has a gambling problem.
District Judge Glenn Ellington said Friday he will allow Duran to withdraw her guilty plea if he decides at the Dec. 14 sentencing hearing to impose prison time. In that case, the AG’s Office would apparently resume prosecuting its original charges against Duran.
Erlinda Johnson, Duran’s attorney, rejected suggestions the Republican former secretary of state had received lenient treatment in the case, saying the plea deal waived several pending defense challenges that could have led to key evidence being tossed out.
“This is how the criminal justice system works – there’s a lot of negotiation that takes place,” Johnson told reporters. “I don’t think that she was afforded any special treatment because of who she is.”
Looking for successor
The resignation of Duran, a Republican, creates a vacancy in one of New Mexico’s highest-profile elected offices less than 13 months before the 2016 general election.
Gov. Susana Martinez will appoint a successor to Duran, with that person then expected to hold the office through next year. It would then be up to voters to pick a new secretary of state in November 2016.
A Martinez spokesman said Friday the Republican governor will accept résumés and recommendations for the post and expects to make an appointment in the coming weeks. Deputy Secretary of State Mary Quintana, who previously worked with Duran in the Otero County Clerk’s Office, will serve as acting secretary of state until the governor decides.
“In the wake of Ms. Duran’s resignation, the governor hopes we can come together and move forward as a state,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said in a statement Friday.
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who was defeated by Duran in the 2014 general election, said in an email to supporters Friday that she is “actively considering” a 2016 bid to be secretary of state.
Duran had been under mounting pressure to resign since being charged with fraud, embezzlement and other charges for misusing campaign contributions. Although the amounts withdrawn at eight casinos ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the counts against Duran revolved around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.
The case against Duran prompted calls for more oversight of the state’s campaign finance system and the campaign filings of several state lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – came under scrutiny since the charges were filed.
Viki Harrison, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for tougher campaign finance disclosure laws, said public trust in the secretary of state is key, since the office is in charge of enforcing New Mexico’s campaign laws and overseeing elections.
“The resignation of the secretary of state is the first critical step in rebuilding the public’s trust in our political system,” Harrison said in a Friday statement, while later adding, “The 2016 elections are already upon us, and voters and candidates alike need to know that the office is functioning at the highest level possible.”
House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, described Duran’s resignation as the “right thing” to do for New Mexico.
A special legislative panel had been created to look into the allegations against Duran and weigh possible impeachment, but Tripp said Duran’s resignation eliminated the need for the committee to investigate further. Panel members are expected to write a final report documenting their work. They could have voted on impeachment during the 30-day session that starts in January.
“By stepping down, Duran has made it possible for Gov. Martinez to appoint a secretary of state in whom New Mexicans can have confidence as we approach the 2016 elections, and taxpayers will be saved from the expense of further investigation by the House Special Investigative Committee,” Tripp said Friday.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said top-ranking lawmakers had been in talks about possibly convening in extraordinary session – a rare occurrence – to issue subpoenas to gather more evidence in the Duran case.
He said he was trying to refrain from passing judgment on the plea deal’s details but expressed surprise Duran’s pension benefits – she is covered by three state pension plans from her past work as a legislator, county clerk and secretary of state – will apparently not be targeted.
“This does strike me as the type of case where forfeiture of one’s pension would have been on the table,” Egolf told the Journal.
Egolf disputed Duran’s description of her tenure as secretary of state, saying there was a “healthy dose of partisanship.”
Leaders of both the state Democratic and Republican parties also weighed in on Duran’s resignation.
“We respect Dianna Duran’s decision to step down amid these recent accusations and help restore credibility to the Secretary of State’s Office,” Republican Party of New Mexico Chairwoman Debbie Maestas said. “Voters rightfully demand that our elected officials be accountable to the law, and our party will continue to advocate for accountability in government.”
State Democratic Party chairwoman Debra Haaland vowed Democrats will run a strong candidate for the post in 2016, adding, “I am hopeful that we can move forward with a fair election in 2016, and that trust can be restored in the Secretary of State’s Office.”