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Jurors Acquit Vigil on 23 of 24 Counts in Public Corruption Retrial

By Tim Korte/
Associated Press
      A federal jury on Saturday acquitted former state Treasurer Robert Vigil on 23 counts of extortion and racketeering, while finding him guilty on a single count of attempted extortion.
    Vigil sat motionless as the counts were read in court shortly after 1 p.m. His wife, Viola, and other relatives began to cry as U.S. District Judge James Browning read "not guilty'' on each of the first of 23 counts.
    The jury had begun deliberations in the public corruption case Friday, after a nearly four-week trial during which Vigil's attorney called no defense witnesses.
    The attempted extortion count involved a former treasurer's office employee, George Everage, who claimed that he was pressured by then-Treasurer Vigil to hire the wife of ex-Treasurer Michael Montoya as a subcontractor.
    That count carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years, but the judge could sentence him to as little as 12 months.
    Vigil was allowed to remain free pending a sentencing hearing. A date for that hearing was not immediately set.
    Outside the courthouse, defense attorney Sam Bregman thanked the jury and the judge, and said of the single conviction: "That one count is where we feel we have our best legal basis to overturn it.''
    He asked the reporters to give Vigil and his family space; Vigil took no questions. Both men then walked away, with about two dozens of Vigil's relatives close behind.
    Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Gerson said he was pleased the jury had found Vigil guilty on the one count.
    Jury foreman Bill Strouse said jurors didn't believe government witnesses — including Montoya — who were identified as conspirators in an alleged kickback scheme but agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for possible sentence reductions.
    "The acquittal doesn't mean Mr. Vigil was universally admired. It just means he wasn't guilty of a crime,'' Strouse said.
    On the attempted extortion charge on which Vigil was convicted, Strouse said jurors saw "documented evidence'' and corroborated testimony.
    Since Vigil was not convicted on any of the racketeering charges, he will not face forfeiture proceedings involving about $255,000 that the government had claimed was linked to alleged kickbacks.
    Vigil's first prosecution last spring ended in a mistrial May 22 when one juror held out for an acquittal.
    The case was the most sweeping prosecution in decades of a state elected official for misconduct in office.
    When they first indicted Vigil last year, prosecutors described an alleged web of public corruption in which Vigil purportedly gave business to investment advisers in exchange for kickbacks. Vigil resigned in October 2005, after the Legislature started impeachment proceedings against him.
    The federal investigation — code-named "Midas Touch'' — spanned two years and led to the arrest of Montoya, Vigil's predecessor as treasurer. Montoya pleaded guilty to lesser charges and aided the prosecution in its case against Vigil.
    The charges against Vigil and Montoya sent shock waves through state government and triggered a flurry of proposals to tighten oversight of the treasurer's office and its investment of nearly $5 billion in public money.
    Vigil, a Democrat and former state auditor, was elected to a four-year term as treasurer in November 2002 and took office in 2003. Prosecutors alleged there was a pattern of racketeering in the treasurer's office that started when Montoya took office and continued through Vigil's tenure.
    Among the most dramatic evidence were videotapes that appeared to show Vigil accepting cash payments from an investment adviser in different meetings last year. The California-based adviser, Kent Nelson, secretly recorded the meetings as part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a charge and cooperated with prosecutors.
    During their deliberations, jurors asked to see the footage again. Ultimately, they believed the government never proved that Vigil required the money as payment for guarantees of additional state business.
    "He never asked for it (the money). They offered it to him,'' juror Mike Cisneros said. "I'd be the fool if someone came up to me on the street and said, 'Here's 10 grand,' and I didn't take it.''
    Bregman has contended the payments were campaign contributions and violated no law.
    In the months leading up to the first trial, Bregman has attacked the prosecution's case and made it clear that part of the defense strategy will be to challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses, some of whom, like Montoya, agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for possible sentence reductions.

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