Erlinda Ocampo Johnson doesn’t believe former Secretary of State Dianna Duran is a bad person.
Johnson, an Albuquerque attorney, represented Duran in the recent criminal case that led to Duran resigning from office and pleading guilty to two felonies. Johnson says there were weaknesses in the attorney general’s case. She believes she might have been able to successfully defend Duran against the charges.
Duran didn’t want that.
“What I found so unique about Dianna, she didn’t want to go there,” Johnson said during a recent interview. “She recognized what she did and that it was a horrible mistake, it was wrong, and she just wanted to accept responsibility and move on with her life.”
Johnson has represented defendants in several high-profile public corruption cases in New Mexico in recent years. Based on her unique experience, NMPolitics.net sat down with Johnson to get her thoughts on government corruption. One thing she says she’s learned: We’re all capable of making mistakes. Various circumstances lead officials to violate the public trust. Rather than lumping all politicians in together and assuming they’re bad, we should treat each as an individual.
Duran, for example, suffered from a gambling addiction. She stole money from her campaign accounts to keep her personal bank account in the black.
“Absent that issue I am confident she would never have done what she did,” Johnson said. “I just thank the Lord that I’ve never had an addiction. When people fall into the throes of addiction, they make decisions that would be absolutely uncharacteristic of who they are.”
Johnson comes from an immigrant family. She mentioned immigrants as another population of people living in the United States who deserve to be treated as individuals rather than being stereotyped as criminals.
Johnson’s family fled civil war in Nicaragua when she was nine years old. She came to the United States as a refugee, settling near Santa Fe, and later became a citizen.
Her parents didn’t speak English. Her father, who had been a banker in Nicaragua, initially did manual labor to make ends meet. He eventually found work as a bookkeeper. Her mother earned a nursing certificate.
After Johnson earned her law degree from the University of New Mexico, she worked as a state and federal prosecutor for 11 years. When her daughter was born, she opened her own practice and switched to criminal defense. Public corruption and immigration are among her focus areas.
“A lot of people were surprised that I went to do criminal defense,” Johnson said. “I was hard-core.”
“My zeal transferred,” she said.
Her first work on a public corruption case was representing Dennis Kennedy, an accountant who was caught up in the housing authority scandal that exploded a decade ago. The case centered on the misuse of millions of dollars in bond money that was supposed to pay for affordable housing.
The primary defendant in that case, Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos, pleaded guilty to a handful of misdemeanors. Charges against Kennedy and others were eventually dropped, though Johnson had already stopped representing Kennedy at that point.
Johnson later represented Elizabeth “Daisy” Kupfer, who was sentenced in 2013 to three years in federal prison for tax evasion related to the misuse of millions of dollars in federal Help America Vote Act funds during the administration of former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron. A separate state-level case against Kupfer was dismissed.
Johnson also represented Toby Martinez in the notorious case of the theft of millions of public dollars during construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse. Martinez was sentenced to 5.5 years in federal prison in 2009 and ordered to pay $2.7 million in restitution for his role the theft.
And now Johnson represents Duran. Most recently, Johnson filed – and then withdrew – a motion asking a judge to reconsider Duran’s sentence. Duran has already served her court-ordered jail time of 30 days but was briefly contesting a requirement that she speak publicly about her crimes four times each month.
Johnson, in her interview and in the motion she eventually withdrew, expressed concern about vitriol directed at Duran on social media. Public speaking could threaten Duran’s life, her attorney argued in the motion. Johnson told NMPolitics.net she wants people to understand that Duran has taken responsibility for her actions and see that she’s different than some other defendants.
Johnson speaks with compassion about Duran. While she wouldn’t go into details, she said Duran and her husband, who have full custody of three grandchildren, were under stress because of a custody issue and “some very tragic circumstances.”
“She wants nothing more than to just raise these little kids and be there for them,” Johnson said. “She goes to every single one of their games, to every single one of their school events. She’s essentially their mother.”
The stress helped lead to Duran’s gambling addiction, Johnson said. “None of us is beyond making mistakes,” she reiterated.
Johnson comes across as an upbeat and optimistic person. She’s been doing criminal defense work for nine years, and she said it’s taught her to “evaluate people individually and treat them as human beings.”
Other defendants she’s represented – including those charged with public corruption crimes – have their own stories and were also dealing with unique circumstances, Johnson said.
“Honestly, I don’t think I have ever represented someone I could say, ‘Oh my God, this person is really bad.’ I think there is always an unfortunate circumstance behind why somebody gets involved” in crime, Johnson said.
Johnson also believes it’s unfair to treat all politicians as corrupt because of the actions of a few. Judges are required to evaluate each defendant individually. She urged the public to do the same with government officials.
“We have some very good politicians, some very honorable politicians,” Johnson said.