Friday, May 16, 2008
Traffic Case Could Get Lyons in a Jam
FOR THE RECORD: This story published Friday in the print edition of the Journal incorrectly stated the date on which state Land Commissioner Pat Lyons was cited by State Police for speeding and a lane violation on I-25 in Sierra County. He was cited on March 2, 2007. This story has been corrected.
By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
He could have paid the fines.
But Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, ticketed for speeding and improper lane change in a state vehicle, insisted he was innocent and wanted his day in court.
More than a year later, the case has mushroomed into a legal dispute involving the state attorney general, a defense lawyer from one of Albuquerque's biggest firms and ethics questions raised by the involvement of the Land Office general counsel.
The saga began with Lyons getting pulled over by State Police on March 2 of last year while driving a state car to a meeting on the proposed New Mexico spaceport near Truth or Consequences.
Officer Andrew Laux ticketed Lyons for driving 80 mph in a 65-mph zone and a lane violation on I-25 in Sierra County. The violations are misdemeanors, punishable by estimated total fines of about $200.
Land Office general counsel Robert Stranahan represented Lyons, his boss, in the case for several weeks a move that raised questions within the State Police and could run afoul of the state's Governmental Conduct Act.
Stranahan, in a phone interview Thursday, said Lyons initially represented himself in the case, filing requests for continuances because court dates conflicted with his state business.
Stranahan said Lyons is fighting the citations because "he believes he's innocent. It certainly would have been easier for him to just pay it, but if you didn't do what you're accused of doing, I assume you wouldn't just pay the fine."
Lyons did not return calls from the Journal.
Matter of continuance
In February of this year, Sierra County Magistrate Thomas G. Pestak denied Lyons' latest motion to continue the case and set a court date for Feb. 15.
"He (Lyons) was going to be out of state and asked if I could go down and represent him on it," Stranahan said.
"We made the decision that I could go down (as Lyons' legal representative) based on the fact he had been traveling to a spaceport meeting at the time and was driving a state vehicle," Stranahan said.
"Rather than have a warrant issued because he couldn't attend the trial, I went down to represent him," Stranahan said.
The Land Office lawyer said the court had denied the continuance because time was running on a rule that requires cases to be adjudicated within six months of arraignment.
"So I went down (on Feb. 15) and waived the six-month rule so there would be no detrimental effect on the state and they could take as long as they wanted to prosecute," he said.
No new trial date has been set.
Shortly afterward, Stranahan said he was called by District Attorney Clint Wellborn, who told him State Police officials were "somewhat upset" that Stranahan had represented Lyons in court.
Stranahan said he then sought an "informal opinion" from Chief Deputy Attorney General Al Lama.
"The attorney general refused to contact me regarding the matter," Stranahan said.
"Weeks later, I got a letter from Al Lama that said, if my inquiry was regarding my representation of Pat Lyons on a traffic ticket, they could not advise," Stranahan said.
Larry Barker inquiry
Stranahan withdrew from the case on May 7 the same day KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker requested documents on the case from Sierra County Magistrate Court.
Stranahan said it was the attorney general's response, not Barker's interest, that prompted him to withdraw.
Entering as Lyons' new attorney on the same day May 7 was Albuquerque attorney Emil J. Kiehne of the Modrall law firm.
Stranahan said he filed paperwork earlier this month several months after the fact putting himself on unpaid leave for the time he spent on Lyons' case.
"I took a leave without pay for the period that I was down there, so there wasn't any money that came out of our coffers to pay for my representation," he said.
Communications Director Phil Sisneros said Thursday that the AG's Office couldn't discuss the issue with Stranahan because it could become involved in possible ethics questions over his role.
Though he declined to discuss specifics, Sisneros told the Journal that, in general, if an elected official were being represented by a state-paid attorney in a case unrelated to state business, "That would appear to not be proper."
"When all the facts on this are brought to bear, we could be in the position of having a public official that may have improperly used state resources, so it's prudent for us not to become involved in that," Sisneros said.
Lyons and King
Meanwhile, the AG's Office is handling the prosecution of Lyons' traffic case. There were conflicting statements Thursday about how the attorney general got involved.
Sisneros said the AG's Office was asked to handle the case by State Police and Wellborn because of an unspecified conflict.
But Wellborn said Thursday that it was the AG's Office that sought jurisdiction in the case.
State Police officers normally prosecute their own traffic cases. But Wellborn said a State Police captain called him April 29, complaining that Stranahan was representing Lyons and asking Wellborn to prosecute.
Wellborn said he agreed.
That changed on May 2 when Wellborn ran into Attorney General King at an awards banquet in Albuquerque.
"He (King) happened to mention that they had been working on the Pat Lyons case," Wellborn said, adding that King "offered to handle it."
King is a Democrat who has been feuding with Lyons, a Republican, over controvesial Land Office leases. The head of the State Police is appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson, also a Democrat.
Journal Southern Bureau reporter Rene Romo contributed to this report.