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Secretary of State Dianna Duran has had plenty of eyes on her in the past month after being charged by the state Attorney General’s office for illegally using campaign funds for personal use. But Duran’s very job includes fielding ethics complaints against public officials and candidates, and she’s seen her share of them in her nearly five years in office.
So, how does a public official struggling with her own ethics issues handle others?
Generally her office either dismisses claims or imposes a punishment in the form of a fine. In at least one instance, however, she not only dismissed a claim but countered with a threat to report the complainant for breaking the law to state and federal authorities.
In 2012, just before the general election, an attorney representing the Valencia County Democratic Party filed a complaint with Duran’s office against a candidate for Valencia County Clerk. Elias Barela, who served as a Democratic State Representative for four years, said the candidate in question was too close to the elections and requested that she step down from her position while she was a candidate.
Duran later said Barela’s claim was unfounded and further was in violation of state law. In her response, Duran said she would report Barela and his client to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office as well as the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Too close to the election process?
Barela’s complaint was against current Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal. His claim was that she was too closely involved in an election in which she was running for office. At the time Carabajal worked as the Valencia County Bureau of Elections Director and was running for County Clerk.
From Barela’s initial letter:
Our concern with Ms. Carabajal’s role in managing the election for the Valencia County Clerk’s Office has nothing to do with her competency or her integrity as an individual. However it is our understanding Ms. Carabajal has complete access and is involved in every aspect of running this election, not only in a leadership role, but in a hands-on manner. She is also the Republican candidate for Valencia County Clerk in the November 6, 2012 election. As a candidate and an administrator of the election, she has, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Barela also alleged, in his letter, that Carabajal was influencing voters by greeting them in line and helping at least one person fill out a ballot.
The next day, Carabajal responded with a letter of her own. She denied Barela’s claims and said the instances he mentioned were “vague” and that Barela failed to supply dates, times or individuals involved. Still, she said she would take a leave of absence from her director position for the purpose of “removing any distraction” from the election process. She also called the complaint from Barela and the county Democratic party “a tactic of intimidation.”
Perhaps, it was Carabajal’s use of the word “intimidation” that prompted the last few paragraphs in a letter from Duran. In her response, she dismissed the ethics complaint and went on to accuse Barela and his client of intimidating a candidate and disrupting a voting location.
Dismissal and accusation
Citing a New Mexico Supreme Court case, Duran argued that candidates running for county clerk can indeed run an election. She echoed Carabajal’s previous sentiment and said without any specific instances, she saw no violation.
Duran wrote that she questioned the motives of Barela and the Democratic party, adding she planned on forwarding Barela’s letter to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office for a possible violation of state law.
“Specifically, I am concerned that you and your client have attempted to improperly disrupt the conduct of the election in violation of NMSA 1978, §1-20-20,” Duran wrote.
According to the Election Handbook of the State of New Mexico, which is also maintained by the Secretary of State, the statute Duran referenced reads:
Disturbing the polling place consists of creating any disorder or disruption at the polling place on election day, or consists of interfering with in any manner the conduct of the election or with a member of the precinct board, voter, challenger or watcher, in the performance of his duties. Whoever disturbs the polling place is guilty of a petty misdemeanor.
Duran continued in her letter stating that she would forward the matter on to the Department of Homeland Security. She said she was approached by the Intelligence and Security Bureau with a request that she report any intimidation of a candidate.
“I am reporting you and your client’s meetings with Ms. Peggy Carabajal to this agency so that an investigation can be conducted by it to determine if you and your client’s actions rose to the level of a threat or intimidation,” Duran wrote.
New Mexico Political Report reached out to Duran’s office to determine if the matter was ever forwarded to the Attorney General or Homeland Security. When they respond, this story will be updated with their comments.
No record of action taken
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said he could not confirm any such complaint was filed.
“However, if the Office of the Secretary of State is ready to send a referral it will be reviewed,” AGO spokesman James Hallinan wrote in an email.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security told New Mexico Political Report she could not find any records of a complaint filed by Duran’s office related to the the issue.
Reflecting on that time, Carabajal said she does remember feeling intimidated while she was running for clerk, a position she holds currently.
“It’s just that they just kept coming back,” Carabajal told New Mexico Political Report, referencing members of the Democratic party. “It was a feeling that I needed to leave my office.”
Carajabal said Duran may have seen the Democratic Party’s actions as disruptive because the clerk’s office was conducting early voting and collecting absentee ballots. Still, Carajabal isn’t sure why the matter would be referred to a federal agency.
“I’m not sure what Homeland Security would do with it,” Carajabal said.
Barela, whose time in the House overlapped with Duran’s time in the Senate, said he saw her response as a defensive tactic against the Democratic Party. He told New Mexico Political Report that Duran’s reaction was “unprofessional and nasty.”
“I didn’t criticize them personally,” Barela said, referring to his original letter. “I wasn’t disparaging them.”
Carajabal is the current Valencia County Clerk and told New Mexico Political Report officials in charge of elections often run for office. For example, she said, she plans to run for re-election next year. Carajabal was also rumored to be in the running to be appointed interim Secretary of State, in the event that Duran leaves office—voluntarily or otherwise—before her term is up in 2016.
A group of legislators tasked with looking into the possibility of impeaching Duran met earlier this week. They will meet again next month, but noted that any impeachment proceedings would have to take place during a legislative session.
Less than a week ago, Duran asked the Attorney General to look into the campaign finance reports of Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas.
Read the series of letters below: