Dianna Duran resigns, pleads guilty to two felonies

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Dianna Duran has resigned from her position as New Mexico’s secretary of state and entered into a plea agreement that has her admitting to two felonies related to abusing the state’s campaign finance reporting system.

Dianna Duran

Courtesy photo

Dianna Duran

Though Duran’s resignation is final, her criminal case may not be entirely settled. Duran, who is trying to avoid prison time, has the option to withdraw her guilty plea at a sentencing hearing in December if the judge attempts to incarcerate her.

The AG’s Office didn’t seek to take Duran’s pension, saying the law doesn’t allow for her to be fined in an amount up to the value of her pension in this case.

Duran “indeed tendered her resignation late last night,” her attorney, Erlinda Ocampo Johnson of Albuquerque, wrote in an email to NMPolitics.net early this morning.

Soon thereafter, Duran agreed in court to plead guilty to six of 65 charges she faced, including embezzlement and money laundering. Two of the charges to which Duran admitted are felonies. The other four are misdemeanors.

Because the alleged crimes related to her campaign, not her administration of the Secretary of State’s Office, Duran reportedly could keep her pension.

Judge T. Glenn Ellington scheduled Duran’s sentencing for Dec. 14. He didn’t rule out sentencing Duran to prison, even though the Attorney General’s Office agreed to seek only probation. Ellington said Duran could withdraw her guilty plea at the December hearing if he decides to sentence her to prison time.

Duran was facing fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and dozens of other charges related to abusing the campaign finance reporting system. She initially pleaded not guilty.

Duran’s resignation became known publicly just after midnight because of the leak of an email in which Kari Fresquez, interim state elections director, announced the cancellation of several rulemaking hearings scheduled to be held today.

“In light of Secretary Duran’s resignation on Thursday evening, the Office of the Secretary of State has cancelled the rulemaking hearings,” states the 11:18 p.m. Thursday message to unknown recipients. It was obtained and released by the Democratic Party of New Mexico.

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Shortly thereafter, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed to NMPolitics.net that Duran had indeed resigned. NMPolitics.net isn’t identifying that source.

Duran submitted her resignation letter to Gov. Susana Martinez shortly before midnight Thursday.

“Although I may be leaving office, I shall always reflect upon the last 36 years of service, honored to work with you and others, serving the citizens of the State of New Mexico,” Duran wrote in that letter.

Martinez, a Republican, is now tasked with appointing a replacement to lead the Secretary of State’s Office through the 2016 election. Whoever Martinez appoints will also have to decide whether to run for re-election almost immediately. Voters will select a new secretary of state next year.

Until Martinez makes an appointment, Deputy Secretary of State Mary Quintana is in charge of the office. Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said the governor “hopes to make an appointment in the coming weeks.”

“In the interim, our office will accept résumés and recommendations from the public, lawmakers, and other elected officials,” Sanchez said. “In wake of Ms. Duran’s resignation, the governor hopes we can come together and move forward as a state.”

Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, called Duran’s resignation “the first critical step in rebuilding the public’s trust in our political system.”

And Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, characterized Duran’s resignation as “clearing the cloud over her administration as plans begin for the 2016 election.”

“It’s important for the integrity of our election system that this happened,” Atkeson wrote on Facebook. “I hope Governor Martinez quickly appoints a qualified successor who can raise the stature of the office.”

Duran’s resignation and plea agreement come almost two months after Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a criminal complaint accusing her of using campaign funds to keep her personal bank account in the black while gambling at several casinos in New Mexico.

Duran allegedly deposited some checks intended to be campaign contributions into her personal bank account and never disclosed them as political donations. In other instances the AG’s office says Duran took money out of her campaign account and deposited it into her personal account.

In all, Duran is accused of misusing about $10,000 in campaign funds.

Duran also faced a charge of identify theft for listing a former state senator as her campaign treasurer, allegedly without his knowledge.

The road to resignation

As secretary of state, Duran was responsible for overseeing the state’s campaign finance reporting system. So her alleged abuse of that very system cast doubt on its integrity.

It also led to examination of other candidates’ finance reports and sparked a new conversation about reforming the system.

But Duran herself was a barrier to such conversations. She insisted on showing up to work in recent weeks instead of resigning. Many balked at the idea of her overseeing the 2016 presidential election.

It got worse when Duran went ahead with plans to implement new rules intended to make elections more transparent and accountable. Those were among the rules scheduled for a hearing today.

“What does embattled Secretary of State Dianna Duran not understand about the problem with putting her name and the word ‘reform’ in the same sentence?” asked the Albuquerque Journal editorial board in a piece that ran earlier this week.

The calls for Duran’s resignation had grown louder in recent weeks. Many of the state’s newspapers, politicians and even former staffers in the Secretary of State’s Office said she needed to go. So did NMPolitics.net’s readers.

“There is a confidence problem and, may I add, it is severe,” Cindy Madrid of Socorro wrote during a discussion NMPolitics.net facilitated on Facebook. “This is why she should not continue in the job. She is compromised even if she is proven to be innocent.”

House Speaker Don Tripp had already initiated the process of considering impeachment, but Duran’s resignation halts the special legislative committee’s work. Tripp, in a statement, called Duran’s resignation “the right thing to do for New Mexico.”

It also puts an end to a long political career. Duran served two terms as Otero County clerk. She was a state senator for 17 years. And, in 2010, Duran became the first Republican to be elected secretary of state since 1928. Voters narrowly re-elected her last year.

On to 2016

Following Duran’s resignation, Democrats wasted no time focusing on what’s next. Deb Haaland, who chairs the state Democratic Party, said she’s hopeful New Mexico can “move forward with a fair election in 2016, and that trust can be restored in the Secretary of State’s office.”

“We will have a strong Democratic candidate that will take a hard look at the drop in voter participation in New Mexico as well as the other various issues facing the Secretary of State’s office,” Haaland said.

Meanwhile, state GOP Chairwoman Debbie Maestas said the party respects “Dianna Duran’s decision to step down amid these recent accusations and help restore credibility to the 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,” Maestas said.

This was a breaking news article and was updated repeatedly as the news of Duran’s resignation and plea agreement unfolded. This article has been updated to clarify that the AG’s Office didn’t seek to take Duran’s pension, saying the law doesn’t allow for her to be fined in an amount up to the value of her pension in this case.

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