New Mexico secretary of state pleads guilty to embezzlement

Posted at 9:33 AM, Oct 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-23 12:33:01-04

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran pleaded guilty to embezzlement and other charges Friday after abruptly resigning amid a fraud investigation that alleges she siphoned off thousands of dollars from her election account and withdrew the money at casinos around the state.

In a packed Santa Fe District courtroom, Duran pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement charges and four misdemeanors. Sentencing is slated for Dec. 14 and Duran can withdraw her guilty pleas if a judge later imposes prison time.

Her critics were appalled that as the state official in charge of regulating campaign finance, Duran would be accused of violating the law.

Duran attorney Erlinda Ocampo Johnson and Gov. Susana Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez confirmed Friday that Duran's resignation was effective immediately. Duran submitted her resignation last night, Johnson said in an email to The Associated Press.

As secretary of state, the Republican was one of New Mexico's highest-ranking elected officials. She won a second term last year and was the first Republican elected to the post in New Mexico since 1928. Duran, who began her political career as a deputy county clerk in southern New Mexico in 1988, ran on a platform of eliminating voter fraud.

"Fraud happens a lot in this state. That's why we need voter I.D.," Duran told The Associated Press last year during a campaign event that featured former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Previously, Duran pleaded not guilty to charges alleging she misused campaign donations by funneling some $13,000 into personal accounts and filed false campaign finance reports with her own office, which is responsible for enforcing New Mexico's elections and campaign finance laws.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, filed the allegations against Duran in August following a lengthy investigation.

Prosecutors say bank statements show transactions at casinos, restaurants and cash withdrawals at ATMs.

But, Johnson, Duran's lawyer, said Balderas had a conflict of interest because he and Duran have sparred in the past, according to a motion filed late Wednesday in Santa Fe District Court. Johnson wrote it seems Balderas has a vendetta against Duran.

Balderas strongly disputed that claim.

State legislators had launched an investigation that could have led to impeachment proceedings.

The case has raised questions about the integrity of New Mexico's campaign finance system, and open government advocates have called for reforms as well as an audit of all campaign finance reports and the creation of a state ethics commission in the wake of the probe.

In a statement, Republican Party of New Mexico officials said they respected Duran's decision to "help restore credibility" to the New Mexico Secretary of State's Office.

"Voters rightfully demand that our elected officials be accountable to the law, and our party will continue to advocate for accountability in government," New Mexico GOP Chairman Debbie Maestas said.