Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a politician from a tiny town who won a statewide office on the promise that she would end corruption and run an honest office, could go to jail for 30 days for embezzling money from campaign donors to feed her addiction to gambling.
Fearing jail time, Duran sobbed Monday as she asked state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington, of Santa Fe to be lenient with her. Ellington said some of Duran’s crimes violated the public’s trust and that demanded “restorative justice.” He sentenced her to jail, even though the state attorney general had not sought incarceration for Duran. But Ellington also suspended all but a month of the seven-and-one-half years of incarceration that Duran could have faced on her convictions for two felonies and four misdemeanors.
Along with the jail term, Ellington fined Duran $14,000, ordered her to pay another $13,866 in restitution and required her to place ads in six publications across the state in which she would apologize to the people of New Mexico for her crimes. Duran would be on supervised probation for five years, and she would have to perform 2,000 hours of community service.
Duran, 60, has the option of rejecting the sentence because Ellington imposed jail time. If she does, her plea bargain with the state Attorney General’s Office would be voided, and she once again would face all of the original 65 criminal counts against her.
Duran has until Wednesday to decide whether she will accept the sentence.
In her plea bargain with Attorney General Hector Balderas’ staff, Duran pleaded guilty to stealing campaign donations and doctoring state campaign reports to cover up her embezzlement. The crimes started in 2010, when Duran became the first Republican since 1928 to be elected as secretary of state, according to Balderas’ investigators.
But Duran’s lawyer, Erlinda Johnson, stated in a letter to the judge that Duran’s crimes began after unspecified tragedies in her family in 2012 and 2013. Johnson described Duran as a gambling addict who was preyed upon by casinos that offered her lines of credit to keep her hooked.
Johnson previously had apologized on behalf of Duran and said that Duran was remorseful. For her part, Duran had declared that none of her crimes affected the operations of the Secretary of State’s Office or involved taxpayers’ money. In her brief statement to the judge Monday, Duran for the first time publicly said she was sorry.
“I apologize to the people of New Mexico, to my family and my friends,” she said. “And I’m truly sorry. I would just ask this court for forgiveness and leniency.” Duran was weeping so hard that she barely could get out the words.
If she accepts the sentence, she will have to report to the Santa Fe County jail on Friday. She would be released in the middle of January. The judge denied a request that Duran be allowed to begin her sentence after the Christmas holidays.
Before he announced Duran’s sentence, Ellington said restorative justice “goes beyond simple punishment and simple mercy.” Her high profile as the state official in charge of election laws set her apart from most defendants, the judge said.
Duran’s rise in politics was as steady as her conservatism, in which she supported longer sentences for criminals. From her hometown of Tularosa, population 3,000, Duran won election as the Otero County clerk, then as a state senator and finally as secretary of state.
Ellington said he took her career into account when he decided on her punishment. As part of her sentence, Duran would have to speak to school and civic groups four times a month for the next three years about her life, her gambling addiction and her betrayal of the the public’s trust.
She would also have to be under electronic monitoring for at least two years to make sure she doesn’t go to casinos or racetracks. Ellington sentenced her to three years of monitoring but said she could request to be taken off the surveillance system at the end of two years if she has obeyed all court orders.
Another part of the sentence would be require her to write letters of apology to her campaign contributors whose checks she embezzled for personal use. Those letters would have to be hand-delivered, Ellington said. This would be in addition to her having to buy ads in at least six newspapers around the state to apologize for her crimes.
No mention was made at the hearing of Duran’s government pensions. The Legislature approved a law in 2012 that allows judges to impose fines equal to pensions. But Balderas in negotiating the plea deal, did not go after Duran’s pension, claiming the law was vague.
The $14,000 fine imposed by Ellington is about equal to three months of the pension Duran currently receives.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, has said he will introduce a bill next month that would prohibit any state official convicted of corruption-related felonies from receiving any state pension.
As a convicted felon, Duran, who frequently used to talk about the value of every vote, would lose her voting privileges for at least five years. In New Mexico convicted felons lose their voting rights but can apply to have those rights restored after successfully completing all conditions of their sentence, including parole and probation.
Balderas issued a statement after the hearing saying “The swift adjudication of this matter rectifies the public harm done by the criminal conduct of Ms. Duran and saved tremendous taxpayer impeachment resources.” Balderas said. “The Office of the Attorney General thoroughly investigated the case, which resulted in felony convictions and jail time.”
A special investigative committee of the state House of Representatives had been studying an impeachment proceeding against Duran. That effort ended in October when she resigned from office and then pleaded guilty to six of the 65 charges.
Several of Duran’s friends spoke at the hearing, asking Ellington to be merciful. Among them was state Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington. He told Ellington that, although he is “known as a tough-on-crime legislator,” he believes Duran should be spared from harsh punishment. Duran, Sharer said, “didn’t hurt anyone but herself … and she’s already paid a high price for that.”
Sharer and Duran served together in the Senate before voters elected her as secretary of state in 2010. They re-elected her last year
In announcing his sentence, Ellington disagreed with the notion that Duran’s crimes were victimless.
He said that two of the counts to which Duran pleaded — making an illegal campaign expenditure and filing incorrect information on a campaign report — were different from her crimes of embezzlement and money laundering.
“The harms associated in these two crimes is also public in nature,” he said. “It affects public confidence in their elected officials individually and also in the offices they hold.… Although you stole the money from these individuals, the damage it created is much broader. … You are here because you were trusted by public to enforce campaign laws.”
Ellington said that campaign finance laws create rights for the public. “The public in exercising its civic responsibility of electing public officials has the right to know where the money comes from,” he said. Ellington added that there are limits on how candidates can spend campaign money.
“There’s actually a list. Personal expenses and gambling debts are not on that list,” the judge said.
Ellington said that, as a judge in criminal cases, he deals all the time with people who have addictions — alcohol, drugs and gambling.
“I’ve been concerned about your statements and even when I read your letter I was concerned because it sounded very familiar,” he said. “Many of your statements follow a pattern of rationalization, an excuse that I hear from many addicts. … They minimize the effect [addiction] has on them personally and they minimize the effect it has on everyone else around them.”
After the hearing, a small group of protesters — some of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks, associated in recent years with the Occupy Wall Street movement — gathered outside the courthouse. They expressed their anger over Duran’s sentence. A woman waving a New Mexico flag shouted that Duran was a “degenerate gambler” who deserved a prison term.
The position of secretary of state has been vacant since Duran resigned Oct. 23. According to a report by The Associated Press, Gov. Susana Martinez said Monday during a news conference in Albuquerque that she will announce by the end of the week her choice for Duran’s replacement. That person will serve in the office through the general election in November 2016.
Contact Steve Terrell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 986-3037.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said Duran, if she accepts the judge's sentence, would lost her right to vote. That is true, but this state allows convicted felons to apply for reinstatement of voting rights after successfully completing probation and other conditions of his or her sentence. This has been reflected in the text.