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Senate Mixed on Indictments

By Trip Jennings And Gabriela C. Guzman
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
    Reaction from New Mexico
    SANTA FE— The state Senate was in special session— and had on its plate a bill to create an ethics commission— when indictments were issued alleging a multimillion-dollar public corruption case involving the Senate's former top leader.
    Reactions from stunned senators were sometimes emotional. One top Democrat cautioned people not to leap to guilty verdicts while others said the charges point to the need for ethics reform.
    One of those indicted Thursday, Albuquerque lawyer Manny Aragon, was president pro tem and then majority floor leader of the 42-member Senate when the alleged crimes occurred. For nearly two decades, he probably was the Legislature's most familiar figure.
    "We hope it's not true," Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, told other senators on the floor. Then, referring to the cloud of scandal, he added, "We need to close ourselves off from this kind of perception."
    Gov. Bill Richardson had proposed several ethics and campaign finance reform measures the Legislature had debated in the regular legislative session earlier this year, but only one measure passed— a limit on gifts that public officials can accept.
    The House passed all the measures, which then encountered resistance in the Senate. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said no one could point to anything that a legislator had done to warrant such reforms.
    In interviews Thursday, Sanchez said the courthouse case indictments did not change his mind. He recalled that former state Treasurer Robert Vigil was convicted last year on only one of 24 extortion-related counts, although many thought he would be convicted on more.
    "If I recall way back when, everyone had Vigil convicted of every single count that he was accused of. But after a jury heard all the evidence and listened to it all, instead of reacting to the impact of it ... I think that's why you say let the process go forward."
    As for Aragon, Sanchez said: "I'm disappointed. I hope the (judicial) system works. I just want the system to work. It just hurts a little bit, even the indictment. It casts a shadow over the Legislature and just the indictment itself casts a shadow. There's a lot of honorable people in the Legislature and everyone is affected by it."
    In another interview, Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, said Thursday's indictments, especially of Aragon, would put a cloud over the Legislature because "this was not a rank-and-file member. This was the president pro tem. This was a name that was synonymous with the Legislature."
    New Mexico is one of the last states to not limit campaign contributions or gifts to public officials and political candidates.
    Also, 40 other states have some form of an independent ethics commission empowered to oversee public officials.
    Richardson's office declined to comment on the indictments Thursday.
    Former state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., last year, said Thursday she hoped that top Republicans hadn't compromised the indictment and the federal investigation that produced it.
    Madrid cited what she called the "improper and unethical conduct of Sen. Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson, and Karl Rove and the Bush administration, with regard to the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias."
    Domenici and Wilson have denied any inappropriate conduct in connection with Iglesias.
    The former state attorney general said she couldn't comment on the indictment itself but said that a defense counsel could cite Domenici's and Wilson's calls to Iglesias in October 2006 as evidence of a political witch hunt.
    "I'm sure defense counsel will raise that possibility," Madrid said.
    John Wertheim, chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, also mentioned Domenici and Wilson in his statement, saying he hoped their "attempted political manipulation of these indictments" did not play into defense attorneys' hands. "Because if these indictments do not lead to convictions, Wilson and Domenici will be to blame," he said.
    Wertheim commended "the professional prosecutors at the U.S. Attorneys Office for their refusal to bend to political pressure by filing these courthouse indictments prematurely."
    One of the state's top Republicans said the indictments were long overdue.
    "I think I can speak for all concerned citizens in this state that progress is finally being made by handing down indictments in these cases," Chris Atencio, acting executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a statement. "It's tangible evidence that the cancer of public corruption has existed far too long in New Mexico."
    Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, said the FBI had interviewed him last summer as part of the ongoing investigation into the courthouse case, but he said Thursday's indictments still caught him by surprise.
    "I just can't imagine a person ... of Manny's integrity, his hard work, his knowledge, the honesty that he portrayed during his term of office, as big-hearted as he was, I never would expect this to happen," Altamirano said.
    Journal staff writer Leslie Linthicum contributed to this report.