One of New Mexico’s highest-ranking officials pleaded not guilty Tuesday to fraud, embezzlement and other charges after being accused of funneling campaign contributions to her personal bank accounts and withdrawing large sums of money at casinos around the state.
An attorney entered the pleas for two-term Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran in state district court, marking her first public appearance since the charges were leveled in a 64-count complaint more than two weeks ago.
Duran also has been a no-show at her $85,000-a-year elected post with the exception of some conference calls with staff.
The complaint filed by the state attorney general’s office stems from a confidential tip received in 2014.
The charges have sent shockwaves through political circles and raised questions about enforcement of the state’s election and campaign finance reporting laws.
Calls for Duran to resign continue and a special committee of state lawmakers is expected to begin work this week as part of impeachment proceedings.
Duran has remained silent, making no public appearances or statements since she was charged.
Political observers say the case has prompted disappointment and frustration among voters.
“We have no idea how to measure the impact, but the general effect is one of disillusionment with government and politics,” said Christine Sierra, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
Duran tapped into those same feelings of voter frustration to craft her platform when she first ran for secretary of state in 2010. A native of the southern New Mexico village of Tularosa, she wanted to turn around an office that had been the focus of federal investigations and was known for being dysfunctional.
One of only a handful of Latina women in the nation to hold a statewide office, Duran has spent most of her life in public service. She worked her way up from a technician in the Otero County Clerk’s Office to the New Mexico Senate, where she served for 18 years.
She also was the first Republican elected to the New Mexico secretary of state’s office in more than 80 years. Despite stiff competition from a Democrat, she was re-elected in 2014 after touting her efforts to get the office back on track and taking steps toward accessibility and transparency through technology improvements.
While partisan, Duran’s reputation as a lawmaker and later as the state’s top elections official never raised any flags.
Former Republican state lawmaker Janice Arnold Jones characterized the current allegations as a “personal fall from grace” during a recent call-in show on KUNM radio.
“It appears to me this is truly a gambling problem and there were personal choices, but it really didn’t have anything to do with her ability to do the job in office,” she said.
Dede Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat who spent 14 years serving in the Senate with Duran, said she was shocked to learn of the accusations.
It’s no doubt a credibility issue for Duran, but observers say the bigger question now is whether the case will spur lawmakers to take on reforms that have long proven to be elusive, such as the creation of a state ethics commission and tougher enforcement of campaign finance laws.
Feldman said most of the reforms in other states have come through referendums. Making changes in New Mexico would mean in some cases amending the constitution, which can be difficult and require the support of voters.
“Public pressure has been mounted before to no avail,” Feldman said.
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Susan Montoya Bryan