By Steve Terrell

Embattled Secretary of State Dianna Duran could become the first major politician in New Mexico to face the possibility of losing her public pension because of corruption charges.

The state Attorney General's Office last week charged Duran with 64 criminal counts including embezzlement, fraud, tampering with public records and other crimes. The case centers on allegations that she illegally transferred thousands of dollars in campaign funds to her personal bank accounts and falsified campaign finance reports.

In 2012, the state Legislature passed and Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill that would allow judges to fine public officials convicted of felony corruption charges. A judge could hold a hearing to determine the appropriate amount of the fine, which could be as high as the amount of the official's state pension and salary.

More than 20 of the charges against Duran are felonies.

Her lawyer, Erlinda Johnson, has said Duran will plead not guilty and move to have the charges dismissed. Duran's first appearance in the case is scheduled for Sept. 15 in the Santa Fe courtroom of state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington.

Duran had not appeared for work at her Santa Fe office as of Tuesday afternoon. Her chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, said he hadn't yet talked to her about her plans, but he expected to speak with her Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, as legislators began informal talks about the possibility of impeachment, the state's two largest newspapers, the Albuquerque Journal and The Santa Fe New Mexican, ran editorials Tuesday that called on Duran to resign.

The bill allowing officials convicted of corruption to lose their pensions, sponsored by Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque, passed both chambers without a dissenting vote. Efforts to pass such legislation began under Gov. Bill Richardson's administration in response to a corruption scandal and federal prosecution of former state treasurers Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya for allegedly demanding kickbacks from investment advisers. Vigil served time in prison, but his public pension was unaffected. Finally, after scandals involving former state Senate powerhouse Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., D-Santa Fe, and others, Payne's bill got enough momentum to pass.

Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said Tuesday that her group enthusiastically backed Payne's bill. "Taking their pensions is a good way to hold public officials accountable," Harrison said. "The public has to see swift and fair consequences. That's exactly what the public wants."

Another backer of Payne's bill was Republican Gov. Martinez, who touted the legislation in a 2012 campaign mailer. "People have honest disagreements. But there is one thing on which we can all agree -- there should be no room for corruption in state government," the full-color mailer read. "Susana Martinez ran for governor to clean up government. From day one, she's been working to bring Democrats and Republicans together to clean up government and stop corruption."

Common Cause is using the Duran case to push for additional anti-corruption legislation. Harrison said the group is renewing its call for the state to create an independent ethics commission as well as an elections commission.

The idea of a nonpartisan elections commission is aimed at the Secretary of State's Office. Duran, a Republican whose duties include enforcing campaign laws, is accused of filing false campaign finance reports.

"Now more than ever we need to restore public confidence in the state's ability to administer its campaign laws and elections impartially and with the utmost integrity," Harrison wrote in an opinion piece submitted to The New Mexican. "One way of accomplishing this is by pulling out the elections and campaign administration from the Secretary of State's office, leaving that office to the ministerial functions which it also performs -- filing of liens, commercial record keeping and issuance of notary commission and oversight of usage of the state seal."

Harrison said 16 other states "have taken steps to take the administration of elections and campaign finance out of partisan hands."

Former State Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, twice introduced bills to establish an elections commission. Neither bill got very far in the legislative process.

Among the opponents were Duran and her predecessor Mary Herrera, a Democrat. In the fiscal impact report on Feldman's 2012 bill, Duran's office wrote, "When the electorate is removed from the ability to choose the chief elections officer, it takes away from the right of the people to elect leaders in critically important positions such as overseeing the conduct and providing for the integrity of elections."

Herrera's office in 2009 contended that Feldman's bill "usurps the powers of the Secretary of State."

As for establishing an ethics commission, Harrison said New Mexico is one of only nine states without such an agency. She also noted that since the Vigil scandal, the Legislature has rejected almost 50 ethics commission bills.

(c)2015 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)