What was to have been “a signature case of public corruption by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office” instead ended in 2014 “with a whimper,” the Albuquerque Journal wrote at the time.
The article was referring to the conclusion of the criminal case in the housing authority scandal — which revolved around the alleged misuse of millions of dollars in bond money after a significant portion of the state’s infrastructure for providing affordable housing collapsed.
Then-Attorney General Gary King charged several people tied to the housing-authority system with felony crimes in 2009. But after a drawn-out battle, which included a fight over whether King had a conflict that should prohibit his prosecution of the case, one defendant pleaded guilty to a handful of misdemeanors in 2013. A year later, King dropped all charges against the other defendants.
That included dropping charges against bond attorney Robert Strumor. Among the attorneys on Strumor’s defense team was Erlinda Ocampo Johnson.
Now Johnson is representing Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who is the target of the first felony case new Attorney General Hector Balderas has brought against a public official.
Duran is charged with 64 counts including fraud, embezzlement and money laundering related to allegations that she abused the state’s campaign finance system for personal gain. Duran has pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday, Johnson filed a motion to disqualify Balderas from the case, arguing that he has a bias against Duran.
From the Albuquerque Journal:
The motion seeking to disqualify the AG’s Office from prosecuting Duran argues that Balderas has a conflict of interest due to his past working relationship with the secretary of state, while also arguing he appears to have a political “vendetta” against Duran.
“This perversion of the criminal justice system can be seen as nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to seek retribution of the most punitive kind against Ms. Duran,” the secretary of state’s lawyer wrote in the motion, which says Duran intends to call two lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office as witnesses in the case.
The motion also cites a judge’s 2011 decision to remove the office of then-Attorney General Gary King from the corruption case of former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and three others.
The Vigil-Giron case was another brought by King that ended with a whimper after a long legal battle.
Among the evidence Johnson may cite as she seeks to kick Balderas off the Duran case is his decision to no longer act as attorney for the Office of the Secretary Of State. Balderas notified Duran in a letter sent this week. From the Associated Press:
“Although not made lightly, I believe that the decision to discontinue our legal representation of the SOS while the criminal proceedings are pending will facilitate the operations of both our offices,” the letter states.
The attorney general represents state entities in legal battles and handles campaign finance investigations referred by the secretary of state’s office. Balderas returned 31 campaign finance civil complaints to Duran’s office and recommended that the cases now be referred to district attorneys.
“In light of the ongoing criminal complaint, I believe the most prudent course is to return the 31 referred matters to the SOS,” Balderas wrote. “Although I understand this may cause some inconvenience for your office, the (Campaign Reporting) Act authorizes the SOS to refer these and other civil matters for enforcement to the district attorneys, as well as to the OAG.”
The bottom line: In two big corruption cases in recent years defense attorneys argued that prosecutors had conflicts. The resulting fights led to long court battles, and both cases ended with failed or nearly-failed prosecutions.
Now Johnson is using the same tactic for her newest client, Duran.