If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking. – Anonymous

Sometimes the fight against government corruption takes two steps forward and one step back, but we must keep moving forward if we expect to change what some say is the unchangeable.

If anyone in our state ever doubted my resolve to attack the problem of corruption, I think they know now that it was not just a campaign promise and that I intend to keep moving ahead with more investigations and prosecutions, spearheaded by my Government Accountability Division.

The repercussions and reactions to my resolve should make interesting reading for other law enforcement agencies and the general public.

Recently, our office obtained two convictions regarding the misappropriation of bilingual education funds at the West Las Vegas School District. We also have secured indictments in cases involving misuse of public campaign funds by a Public Regulation Commission member, misuse of federal Help America Vote Act money by a former secretary of state and several contractors, and misuse of funds by the Region III Housing Authority director and several advisors. These cases have not gone to trial yet, but I can assure it is not for lack of effort or skill by my attorneys.

It is important to note that what my office is doing to root out the bad apples in government is often new legal territory for us, simply because no previous New Mexico attorney general has ever gone this deep into the bushel by bringing public corruption cases to this stage. In each of these cases, there are issues raised by defense counsel that present questions of first impression to the courts concerning the authority of the AG to prosecute such cases.

Staying the course

In the PRC case, we are pursuing the action under a relatively new statute. Recently, a judge dismissed six felony charges brought by my office in this case. Other charges remain but are on hold pending our appeal of the dismissal.

The judge ruled that one of the tools the Legislature gave us for prosecution of crimes under the Voter Action Act arguably allows the secretary of state the authority to control whether the AG can prosecute crimes under that act. We do not agree. However, you can see how important it is for the AG to have clear language to pursue these cases if we want to prevail.

Clearly, this was a setback in our efforts to combat illegal behavior by public officials, but the case is not over.

Some have criticized the pace of the proceedings, indicating they have succumbed to the “CSI/Law and Order Syndrome” in which many Americans feel that all cases can be completed in an hour, just like on TV. Such complex cases actually take a significant amount of time and resources to bring to fruition.

Perhaps one reason that corruption seems to be a greater problem in New Mexico is the lack of will or patience to stay the course and reach a judicial conclusion in these difficult cases. I can assure you that I have the skill and determination to complete the task.

Not that long ago, in order to avoid some significant difficulties that resulted from the parallel federal/state prosecution in the treasurer cases, I developed a joint working relationship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which bore fruit in the prosecution of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse fraud case.

One of my attorneys was cross-commissioned and participated in the entire case. Our office played an integral role in bringing all defendants in that case to justice. I have found that the small resources we have can be leveraged significantly by cooperating with other law enforcement agencies.

Providing financial benefit to the state

Additionally, while pursuing these and other corruption cases, my office has also obtained convictions for first-degree murder in three cases involving the killing of a prison guard at the Santa Rosa prison. Those cases were 10 years old when I inherited them at the beginning of my term.

We have also created a multi-agency task force to combat Internet crimes against children that includes more than 50 law enforcement agencies around the state. We have convicted many child abusers and child pornographers as a result of the actions of this task force.

I have many more parts of the agency fighting corruption than just the Government Accountability unit. My Criminal Appeals Division recently argued important procedural motions in two separate courts to protect our jurisdiction to pursue corruption cases in those courts. In the past year my Litigation Division has pursued, on their own or with retained counsel, multiple civil cases to recover monies lost by the state through securities fraud, Medicaid fraud and unfair business practices by multinational corporations.

Over the past year we recovered approximately $81 million for our New Mexico clients (SIC, ERB, PERA and NMSTO) from corporations that fraudulently invested our money. We are pursuing a significant number of other cases that we believe will recover lost state monies. I believe it would be unethical to further discuss these cases at this stage of their investigations.

We also help fight public corruption by having the Civil Division train local public officials to comply with the state’s sunshine laws. I travel to all corners of the state on a monthly basis to help train local officials to carry out their duties in an ethical manner.

My Consumer Division has recovered more than $3 million for consumers who were injured by unethical business practices last year. My office also is involved in intensive arbitration to enforce the provisions of the historic tobacco settlement. This settlement brings $45 million or so into the state’s coffers each year.

As you can see, our office provides an ongoing, significant financial benefit to the state.

Stealing from the public will have legal consequences

We have also tried for several years to have the Legislature pass a law that would apply the ethical considerations of the Governmental Conduct Act to local elected officials, but so far, to no avail.

We will persevere and keep moving forward, step by step, until we make it clear that stealing from the public treasury is not the way we do business in New Mexico, and until those who believe they are entitled to “skim a little off the top” finally understand that it is wrong and that such practices will have legal consequences.

King is New Mexico’s attorney general.

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