September 15, 2015

Lawmakers OK funding for Duran impeachment panel

Shortly following Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s first court appearance Tuesday morning, state lawmakers approved a House subcommittee to consider impeaching her.

RoundhouseLawmakers in the interim Legislative Council, which is made up of members of both the House and Senate, approved $250,000 in funding to pay for the impeachment special committee. The funding will likely go towards the hire of outside counsel.

State House of Representatives Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, appointed a panel of bipartisan lawmakers to investigate whether Duran should be impeached last week. He told committee members that he anticipated the panel would want money to spend on lawyers.

Tripp also made the committee members official during the Legislative Council meeting.

Duran is accused of moving money from campaign accounts to personal accounts. Attorney General Hector Balderas filed 64 criminal counts against Duran in court last month, which also detailed her withdrawals of large amounts of cash at various casinos.

Duran pleaded not guilty to the charges in Santa Fe district court. Her arraignment bars her from stepping into casinos and drinking alcohol before trial. She still may have contact with her office, though cannot discuss the case.

Legislative Council Service Director Raul Burciaga explained to lawmakers any potential impeachment of Duran is separate from what’s happening to her in court.

“These are two totally exclusive processes,” Burciaga said. “The Attorney General’s is a legal process going through the courts. This is a political process, not in the partisan sense, to determine whether her actions rise to the level of impeachment.”

Burciaga recommended not setting a cap on the amount of money to spend on the impeachment panel, which drew opposition from state Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.

Sanchez called that recommendation a “blank check.”

“Being a numbers person, it bothers me to just approve something we don’t have a budget for,” Sanchez said, noting that Duran might resign at any moment. “I think we’re treading on something dangerous.”

Lawmakers capped the amount of money at $250,000 before unanimously approving the measure. If the impeachment panel uses all the money, they can always come back and approve more, Burciaga said.

But if history is any indication, that won’t likely happen.

The state Legislature spend roughly $200,000 on a similar process in 2005 when then-state Treasurer Robert Vigil was indicted for extortion, money laundering and racketeering. Burciaga said that process took roughly four months between Vigil’s indictment and eventual resignation.

Lawmakers spent much less on impeachment proceedings for former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. in 2011. That year, Burciaga said just under $28,000 went to the impeachment panel. Block also resigned.

The process must go through many hoops before any possible impeachment of Duran. This includes a recommendation from the panel, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, a majority vote to impeach from the full House.

If impeached, the Senate can take the case to trial, with senators serving as the jury and the House as the prosecution. Removal from office would require a two-thirds vote from the state Senate.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, asked Burciaga if the impeachment panel would have subpoena authority, to which he replied no. The House as a whole, however, does have subpoena authority.