Records: NM politico pushed judge appointments

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Records show that a political figure at the center of a Las Cruces judicial scandal was in regular contact with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s staff to offer input on appointments to the bench in Dona Ana County.

The Albuquerque Journal obtained (http://bit.ly/18MKo4m ) the emails and a tape-recorded interview under the Inspection of Public Records Request. They suggest that, at the very least, real estate investor Edgar Lopez believed he was the man to see if someone wanted to garner a judicial appointment in Dona Ana County.

Lopez emailed Richardson or his staff on at least a dozen occasions to provide local political background information on nominees, according to the records. And over the years, Lopez, a Richardson fundraiser and transition team member, repeatedly asked Richardson or his staff for “five minutes” of the governor’s time for unspecified reasons.

In one email, he reminded the governor that the nominee he was touting at the time provided the Richardson campaign with free buses for political events.

Lopez was never charged with a crime in the bribery case brought by a special prosecutor, Clovis District Attorney Matt Chandler. However, it was the suggestion by then-District Judge Mike Murphy that a potential judicial nominee needed to make contributions to Richardson through Lopez that led to a wider investigation and, ultimately, a grand jury indictment on charges of bribery and witness intimidation against Murphy.

When the allegations became public, Richardson, a Democrat who was governor from 2003 to 2011, called them “outrageous and defamatory” and defended his record on judicial appointments.

Lopez said in a telephone interview last week that the emails were just “personal recommendations” and that Richardson “made the decisions based on all the information he received.”

“The final decision was the governor’s and he made them,” Lopez said.

Lopez has maintained that there was no connection between campaign contributions and judicial appointments. He has also said he never accepted cash contributions for Richardson.

The potential nominee, Las Cruces attorney Beverly Singleman, told District Judge Lisa Schultz about Murphy’s advice that she make cash contributions to Lopez on a weekly basis. Schultz confronted Murphy about the allegations and later taped conversations with him in which he discussed making political contributions to get judicial appointments.

Schultz was reluctant to lodge a complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission because it was controlled by Richardson appointees. She eventually brought the allegations to then-Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez, who is now the state’s governor. Martinez, in turn, asked Chandler to be special prosecutor.

In an agreement with the Judicial Standards Commission, Murphy resigned from the bench last year for making off-color, anti-Semitic and anti-gay remarks that were taped by Schultz in subsequent conversations between the two.

After the scandal came to light, the state Supreme Court tightened rules on the types of political activity judges were allowed to do, including banning direct solicitations of campaign donations for political parties or other candidates.

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