Attorney General Hector Balderas has promised to “aggressively prosecute” public corruption — and, less than a year into his first term in office, he secured a guilty plea and the resignation of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran last week.
Opinion appears to be mixed on whether the plea agreement Balderas’ office entered into with Duran was sufficiently tough or too lenient.
The AG’s Office agreed to drop 59 of the 65 charges Duran faced. It agreed not to seek prison time as long as Duran pays restitution of up to $14,000, stays out of casinos, and enters treatment.
The AG’s Office also didn’t seek to take Duran’s pension, saying the law doesn’t allow it in this case.
On the other hand, Balderas’ office got Duran to admit to two felonies and four misdemeanors for stealing money from her campaign accounts to keep her personal account in the black while she gambled.
And perhaps most importantly Duran agreed to resign from office. That “pleased” Balderas, according to a statement released by his office.
“Citizens can be confident that Dianna Duran will no longer have supervisory control of public funds or the reporting process within the Secretary of State’s Office,” Balderas said. “I am hopeful that this resolution will begin to rebuild the public trust and compel the new leadership to improve oversight and compliance in our campaign finance system and electoral process.”
The debate over prison time
Many people said getting Duran out of office isn’t enough. In discussions NMPolitics.net facilitated on Facebook, a number of New Mexicans demanded prison time.
“She should be behind bars, as is standard procedure for all other felony convicts,” wrote Robb Chavez of Albuquerque.
Mark Benson of Las Cruces agreed.
“If she doesn’t do at least a few years of prison, she got off too lightly,” he wrote.
Though the AG agreed to not seek prison time, there’s no certainty Duran won’t see the inside of a cell. District Judge T. Glenn Ellington reserved the right sentence Duran to prison. But he said Duran could back out of the plea agreement if he attempts to do that at her December sentencing hearing.
That would unravel the deal between Balderas’ office and Duran.
On the other hand, the AG also agreed to defer to Ellington on whether Duran should get a conditional discharge — which would erase the felony convictions from her record if she successfully completes probation.
Claudia Anderson of Farmington defended Duran’s plea deal on Facebook.
“She is being held accountable. Jail in the case serves no purpose other than placating the howling mob,” Anderson wrote. “…She is unemployable now. New Mexico taxpayers lost nothing; it was her donors who suffered the loss. Are we really that vindictive about our public servants that we would condemn her to such a fate?”
Duran’s attorney, Erlinda Ocampo Johnson of Albuquerque, defended the plea deal during the Facebook discussions. Johnson has contended there were technical problems with the AG’s prosecution from the start.
The defense could have “continued with litigation and sought the suppression of all of the state’s evidence and could’ve likely won,” Johnson wrote on Facebook, but “both sides weighed the risks and benefits and crafted a plea that was fair.”
“Ms. Duran accepted responsibility. She is deeply ashamed. There is no evidence this conduct spanned longer than the past couple of years,” Johnson wrote. “It’s easy to judge someone, but we are all human and make mistakes. Sometimes, people who would otherwise not break the law succumb to personal issues that cloud their judgment.”
Some complained on Facebook that Duran got off easy by using her resignation as a bargaining chip. There shouldn’t be “one set of rules for common citizens and another for elected officials and the rich,” wrote Ed Edmundson of Las Cruces.
Susan J. Romero of Santa Fe agreed.
“All I know is if anybody outside of politics had done this they would serve time,” Romero wrote. “…I just feel this was a slap on the wrist.”
Others thought Duran’s punishment fit the crime.
Duran probably did “get a better deal than the average citizen would,” wrote Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque attorney.
“But I don’t think our society is served by incarcerating nonviolent offenders, whether they are politicians or not,” Duhigg wrote. “Ms. Duran should face consequences for her actions, but just because people are angry doesn’t mean jail time is appropriate.”
Las Cruces attorney C.J. McElhinney called the deal “pretty fair” in a commentary NMPolitics.net published over the weekend.
“There is almost always an outcry for maximum punishment in a case like this, but that’s also why the judicial branch of government is the least democratic of the three: It has to temper fairness with compassion for the accused,” McElhinney wrote.
“Good on Duran for resigning, and she should definitely be punished,” wrote Jason Smith of Las Cruces. But the solution isn’t putting Duran in prison — it’s putting fewer people there, he said.
“We have enough of our citizenry — more than any other country on the planet — incarcerated,” Smith wrote. He added that imprisoning people who pose “zero physical threat to any of us is completely ridiculous and wasteful.”
Still, others who aren’t a danger land in prison, many pointed out.
“If she were a single mother on food stamps, working at McDonalds and facing 60 felony charges,” asked Lee Elner of Las Vegas, “do you suppose she would walk away with a guaranteed income and no prison time?”
Tracy Navarro of Santa Fe wrote that Duran’s plea agreement is “not justice.”
“This is the privileged class of crooks getting different treatment for what I consider much more serious crimes than 14 pot plants (which a man just spent 10 year in prison for),” Navarro wrote.
The cost of prosecution
Johnson, Duran’s attorney, has worked for defendants in several high-profile cases in recent years, including two that dragged on for years — the housing authority scandal involving Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos and a case involving former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron.
Johnson pointed out on Facebook that defense attorneys won the case in state court against Vigil-Giron and other defendants (though three others in that case were convicted in federal court). The victory for the defendants in state court came after a long court battle the resulted in the AG’s Office being disqualified from prosecuting the case.
The special prosecutor who took over billed the state $800,000 for his work, Johnson said.
“Why didn’t anyone question that outrageous taxpayer expense?” she asked. “… Ms. Duran was very thoughtful about the taxpayer expense in a protracted litigation as we saw in the Rebecca Vigil-Giron case.”
Paul Borunda of Las Cruces wrote that citizens still want accountability.
“How many still suffer for a mistake made years ago?” Borunda asked. “Why should we have compassion for her and not others?”
Johnson said she understands people want “answers and accountability.”
“Please keep in mind that unlike other politicians in years past who litigated their cases for quite a while (I know since I was involved in several of those cases), Ms. Duran decided to accept responsibility very early so that she, her family and the people of this state could move on,” Johnson wrote. “I would hope that people can see past their anger and forgive.”
The bottom line
Unless Duran’s plea agreement unravels at the December sentencing hearing, she will avoid prison time. But Barbara Alvarez of Las Cruces said her “biggest concern” was that Duran be removed from office — and that’s happened.
And unless the judge grants Duran a conditional discharge and she eventually has her felony convictions erased, she’ll never be allowed to run for public office again. Convicted felons are barred from holding elected office in New Mexico.
“I don’t like her. I didn’t vote for her. I’m glad she’s gone. I wish her recovery and a life not controlled by addiction,” Sharon Reddy of Albuquerque wrote on Facebook.
And Balderas, in his statement about the Duran plea agreement, promised to “continue to prosecute individuals who violate the public trust.”