New Mexico secretary of state pleads not guilty to fraud

One of New Mexico's highest-ranking officials pleaded not guilty Tuesday to fraud, embezzlement and other charges.

Two-term Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran is accused of funneling campaign contributions to her personal bank accounts and withdrawing large sums of money at casinos around the state.

Duran sat silently next to her attorney, who entered the pleas on her behalf in state district court. It marked her first public appearance since the charges were leveled in a 64-count complaint more than two weeks ago.

They have sent shockwaves through political circles and raised questions about enforcement of the state's election and campaign finance reporting laws.

Duran and her lawyer slipped out a back door at the courthouse after the arraignment. Television cameras pursued them, but they refused to comment.

Under conditions of release set by the judge, Duran will be allowed to perform duties related to her position despite prosecutors' requests that she not have access to private or public funds. However, Duran has been a no-show at her $85,000-a-year elected post with the exception of some conference calls with staff.

"She's still the sitting secretary of state," her attorney, Erlinda Johnson, told the judge. "She is presumed innocent. She has not been convicted of any offense."

Johnson sought to have many of the charges dismissed, arguing about jurisdiction and saying that Duran's rights to due process were being violated. The judge denied the motions.

Calls for Duran to resign continue, and state lawmakers were meeting Tuesday to determine whether to set aside money for an investigation as part of impeachment proceedings. Duran has been silent, making no statements since she was charged.

The complaint filed by the state attorney general's office stems from a confidential tip received last year.

The case has prompted disappointment and frustration among voters, political observers say.

"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.

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.

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.

Duran's next hearing was set for Oct. 23. It could be December before she returns to court for a preliminary hearing, when it would be decided if there's enough evidence for the case to move forward.