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Impeachment Not Likely To Be Resolved During Special Session

By Barry Massey/
Associated Press
      SANTA FE — The Legislature could be asked next week during a special session to start impeachment proceedings against state Treasurer Robert Vigil because of pending federal felony charges. However, impeachment isn't likely to be resolved quickly.
    A Republican House member, Rep. Larry Larranaga of Albuquerque, said Tuesday he plans to introduce a resolution calling for Vigil's impeachment unless the treasurer steps down from the office without pay while the federal prosecution continues.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, and other lawmakers expressed doubts that there will be enough time during the special session to deal with impeachment and the many questions surrounding how the proceedings should be handled.
    "Our members are aware that impeachment proceedings would be lengthy and time consuming, which may make it difficult to proceed during in a short special session,'' Lujan said in an interview. "We may have more information and more time to deal with this issue in January.''
    The Legislature convenes in January for a 30-day session.
    No New Mexico state elected official ever has been impeached, according to the Legislative Council Service.
    Vigil and his predecessor, Michael Montoya, are the subject of a federal investigation into corruption and racketeering that involves millions of dollars in state investments by the treasurer's office.
    Vigil and Montoya have pleaded not guilty to extortion charges. They allegedly demanded kickbacks from financial advisers in exchange for steering state investment business to them.
    The state Constitution provides for the impeachment of state officers and judges for "crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance in office.''
    Because the House and Senate haven't been through an impeachment, many procedural questions exist — ranging from standards of proof that should be used by lawmakers in considering an impeachment resolution to rules for evidence and testimony from witnesses.
    Impeachment is a two-step process.
    A majority vote in the House would be required to impeach Vigil. That action would immediately force him to step down and prevent him from exercising any day-to-day control over the office, but it's uncertain whether Vigil would continue to receive his $85,000 salary, according to John Yaeger of the Council Service.
    If the House votes to impeach, then Vigil would face a trial in the Senate. A two-thirds vote by the Senate would be necessary to convict him, which would permanently remove him from office, prohibit him from ever serving again in any office and would bar him from voting in the state.
    The Legislature is to return to work in the special session starting on Oct. 6. Gov. Bill Richardson wants lawmakers to consider a proposed tax rebate and other relief for New Mexicans from high gasoline and natural gas prices. He says the session should last only a few days.
    Lujan said one option is for a House panel to be assigned to review an impeachment resolution against Vigil, if one is introduced next week, and then make recommendations to lawmakers in January on how to proceed.
    In an impeachment, the House functions much like a grand jury in a criminal prosecution, according to Democratic Reps. Al Park of Albuquerque and Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, both lawyers.
    The House makes a determination whether the matter should go to trial in the Senate. The means the House — most likely a House committee — needs to gather evidence, including potentially having testimony from witnesses. The Senate also would need evidence for its trial. However, collecting evidence could prove very difficult for legislators.
    Park said it's unlikely that federal prosecutors will want to share their evidence and witnesses with the Legislature before a trial is held for Vigil or Montoya.
    "I would be surprised if the U.S. attorney would let us interview their witnesses. It could jeopardize their case,'' said Park.
    Larranaga contends the House could handle an impeachment resolution during the special session. He suggested that documents released by federal prosecutors, including an FBI affidavit outlining aspects of the kickback scheme involving Montoya and Vigil, provide enough information for a House vote on whether to impeach Vigil.
    "From the House side, it would be very quick and it could be done within two or three days — to gather all of that information,'' said Larranaga.
    Park and Wirth see it differently.
    "The House process, it can't be just done in a day because you can't impeach someone based upon merely what you read in the newspaper,'' said Park.
    The House and Senate have the power to issue subpoenas, but Wirth said it's still possible that potential witnesses could refuse to testify.
    "Realistically, we're in a special session here. And to do this right and to be fair about it, it's going to take some time. I think that's something that people do need to understand because I think there is a perception that this can happen very quickly,'' said Wirth.
    Larranaga, Wirth and Park served on a House subcommittee earlier this year that reviewed how to handle a resolution calling for the impeachment of Public Regulation Commissioner E. Shirley Baca.
    She was arrested last December on misdemeanor drug charges, but prosecutors dropped the charges in May.
    The House Rules Committee, based on the recommendation of its subcommittee, decided in March that it was premature to proceed with the impeachment proposal against Baca.
    However, a report by the subcommittee concluded that the House "does have the power to impeach a state officer who has been accused but not convicted of a criminal act.''