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The State of New Mexico may be taking its first steps toward impeaching Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who is under fire for criminal charges involving misuse of campaign funds for personal use. The Albuquerque Journal has more:
House Speaker Don Tripp said late Wednesday that he will create a special legislative panel to investigate the criminal charges against Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a move that marks the first step toward possible impeachment proceedings.
The House speaker, a Socorro Republican, did not specify who would be appointed to the House panel, but said it would be made up of either 8 or 10 members, with an equal number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
He also sent a letter to Attorney General Hector Balderas on Wednesday, asking that evidence from the case be made available to the committee.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations made by the attorney general against the secretary of state, I believe the appropriate and responsible next step for the House of Representatives is to begin the process of determining whether these charges have merit and rise to the level of impeachment,” Tripp said in a statement.
Duran, a second-term Republican, has faced pressure to resign since a slew of charges were filed last week related to her alleged conversion of campaign contributions to personal use, including gambling.
The Attorney General’s Office alleged 64 total violations in the criminal complaint and investigation, most of them dating back to 2013 and 2014. Although the amounts withdrawn at casinos run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the counts against her revolve around 19 transactions totaling about $13,000.
The proposed committee would represent an initial step toward full impeachment proceedings:
Under the state Constitution, the impeachment of a public official must start in the House of Representatives. If a majority of elected members of the 70-member House vote for impeachment, it’s then up to the Senate to hold a formal trial on the matter.
From a practical standpoint, launching the impeachment process before the 30-day session that will begin in January would require Gov. Susana Martinez to call a special session of the Legislature or for lawmakers to call themselves back to the Roundhouse for an extraordinary session.
If funding for the special committee is approved by top-ranking lawmakers at a Sept. 15 meeting of the Legislative Council, the panel could begin its work shortly thereafter, Tripp said.
He sent a letter Wednesday to Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, asking for her cooperation in adding funding and authorization for the committee to the Legislative Council meeting agenda.
Tripp also said the committee would most likely follow the procedures that were used in 2011, when the House was planning impeachment proceedings against Public Regulation Commission member Jerome Block, who then pleaded guilty to embezzlement and other crimes and resigned.
As such, the committee would likely hire a special counsel to collect and present evidence, and then would decide whether there was credible evidence to recommend impeachment.
While there’s never a good time for impeachment proceedings against a state election official, it’s probably safe to observe that the timing of this effort has the potential to disrupt key activities in 2016 and beyond. In April, New Mexico enacted a sweeping election reform bill that tasks the SoS, among other things, with implementing an online registration lookup and update tool by January 2016 as a prelude to full OVR by January 2017. That project, plus the all-hands-on-deck that is preparation for a presidential election, will certainly be more difficult if the state’s chief state election official is on trial on the Legislature – with all the drama and partisanship such an event can bring.
Duran is set be arraigned on September 15, after which the process may become a little clearer. Either way, election preparations in New Mexico are likely to be even more adventurous than usual for the next fifteen months – at a time when state and local officials could do with as little drama as possible.