April 21, 2016

After appeal, SoS’ office has to pay big in open records case

Joey Peters

Dianna Duran speaking to the press after her guilty plea in October, 2015.

An open records case related to unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud will cost the Secretary of State’s office $90,000.

Dianna Duran speaking to the press after her guilty plea in October, 2015.

Joey Peters

Dianna Duran speaking to the press after her guilty plea in October, 2015.

The Santa Fe New Mexican first reported on the decision by the state Court of Appeals.

Then-Secretary of State made national headlines when she alleged that 117 foreign nationals were registered to vote—and that 37 had actually illegally voted.

Duran checked voter registration records against motor vehicle and Social Security databases; she sent 64,000 records with alleged irregularities to state police to investigate.

Some questioned why Duran sent the files to the state police instead of to individual county clerks to check the voter rolls; experts said at the time that these were likely clerical errors or voters just using variations on their name (Tom instead of Thomas, for example).

No one was ever prosecuted or even identified.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, in 2011, sought the list of alleged names through the state Inspection of Public Records Act. They initially released some of the documents, and those were heavily redacted. The Secretary of State’s office eventually admitted that no such record existed.

The office originally argued that releasing the documents would violate privacy laws.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for government transparency and accountability in our state. Rather than making the embarrassing admission that her claims were largely unsupported, Duran spent years attempting to hide information from the public and it has cost taxpayers dearly,” ACLU of New Mexico Legal Director Alexandra Freedman Smith said. “We hope this ruling stands as a reminder to the state and other local governments that violating public records law has consequences.”

Media outlets also sought the documents, to no avail.

But then came the question of attorney’s fees. The appeals court upheld the district court decision on the fees.

The legal fees on the initial case totalled $87,000. The tab on subsequent attorneys fees, from the appeal, will likely push that number well over $90,000.

The Secretary of State’s office can still appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. It’s not clear if that’s the action the office will want to take, especially under a new Secretary of State.

Since the case, Duran pleaded guilty to charges including use of campaign funds at casinos. She resigned before her guilty plea.

Duran ended up spending 30 days in jail for the infractions, setting up a presidential-year Secretary of State’s race for the first time since the state changed the term length to four years.

Update: Added quote from Alexandra Freedman Smith.