Friday, October 7, 2005
Reps. Seek Help On Vigil Case
By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE A special legislative committee that will determine whether federal extortion charges against state Treasurer Robert Vigil warrant his impeachment wasted no time in getting to work Thursday.
Less than two hours after its appointment by state House leaders, the bipartisan group of five Democrats and five Republicans sought recommendations for an independent counsel to guide it through a historic process likely to set precedents for the state and its Legislature.
There has never been an impeachment in New Mexico. House leaders said they want the process leading up to a possible impeachment vote to be sensitive to a person's right of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, some lawmakers also said they didn't want a long, drawn out process.
"It's costing $70,000 a day to have us up here," House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque, said of the special legislative session.
The session, called by Gov. Bill Richardson to provide consumer relief from high energy prices, began Thursday.
House Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Rep. Eric Youngberg, R-Albuquerque, co-chairmen of the committee looking into the Vigil case, said they hope to designate an "attorney of the highest integrity" to be independent counsel as soon as today.
They also agreed to notify U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and his office by letter of the panel's creation to conduct a fact-finding mission.
Iglesias' office is prosecuting Vigil, who has pleaded not guilty after being arrested Sept. 16 on federal extortion charges related to an alleged kickback scheme. Former state Treasurer Michael Montoya, Vigil's predecessor, was also arrested on federal extortion charges on Sept. 16 and has also pleaded not guilty.
Given the high-profile nature of Vigil's troubles, some lawmakers hope the legislative panel can recommend by the end of the special session whether there is enough evidence to impeach Vigil.
But the more likely scenario, Martinez said, would see the panel recommend a process. The process would include a threshold for an impeachable offense, whether to issue subpoenas and how and what role Vigil and his attorney would play in impeachment proceedings, should that be the route the committee recommends.
Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, a member of the newly created panel, wanted to move faster.
"We are on trial ourselves, too," he told the panel. "How we handle this says something about us."
Holding up an inch-thick sheath of papers, including the federal indictment against Vigil and affidavits in the federal investigation, Larranaga said the committee had enough information to start considering whether Vigil should be impeached.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would require any elected state official charged with a felony to step down from office without pay until the case against them is resolved.
The House agreed to let Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera, excuse himself from all impeachment-related votes. The legislator is the treasurer's brother.
"It was my idea," Richard Vigil said. "I wanted to be fair."
Others in addition to Martinez, Youngberg and Larranaga chosen to be on the panel to look into the Vigil case are: Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis; Rep. Terry Marquardt, R-Alamogordo; Rep. Kathy McCoy, R-Sandia Park; Rep. Daniel Silva, D-Albuquerque; Rep. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces; and Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-San Juan Pueblo.
After the panel to investigate impeachment had been selected, House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said he expected other bills to move swiftly. The Legislature has budgeted for seven days in special session.
State lawmakers have felt increasing pressure from the public to act on the Vigil issue, using their constitutional powers.
Vigil has refused to resign, and the governor cannot remove him because the state treasurer is an independently elected officer. The treasurer oversees an investment portfolio of nearly $5 billion.
Under the constitution, a majority of state lawmakers in the House can impeach a public official for "crimes, misdemeanors, or malfeasance." The impeachment vote would prevent Vigil from acting as treasurer pending a Senate trial.
Two-thirds of 42 senators would have to vote to convict Vigil to permanently him from office.
Michael Browde, a University of New Mexico constitutional law professor, told the panel of lawmakers assessing Vigil's alleged activities that the state constitution's description of impeachable offenses crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance allows for some latitude. It "is broader than a technical violation of criminal law."
"Impeachment is not punishment; it is not legal. It is a cleansing of the government processes ... to ensure they are above reproach," Browde said.