New Mexico Judge Charged in Bribery Case, but Former Governor Draws a Mention
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PHOENIX -- The indictment of a judge on bribery charges is big news anywhere, but the case against Michael Murphy, a state district judge in New Mexico, has shaken the politics of that state and returned Bill Richardson, the former governor, to the headlines.
Prosecutors accuse Judge Murphy of advising a judicial candidate several years ago that if she wanted to increase her chances of getting a judgeship, she should deliver cash in an envelope to a Democratic Party operative, who would pass it along to Mr. Richardson, who was in his second term as governor. Judge Murphy is quoted in court papers as saying that the practice was commonplace and that he paid $4,000 to win an appointment from Mr. Richardson in 2006.
Mr. Richardson said in a statement that suggestions that he appointed judges based on campaign contributions were "outrageous and defamatory."
His supporters call the case politically motivated, pointing to the involvement of two prominent Republicans, including Gov. Susana Martinez, who succeeded Mr. Richardson in January. "That speaks volumes about this prosecution," said Gilbert Gallegos, who was Mr. Richardson's deputy chief of staff.
In 2009, Ms. Martinez, who was then a district attorney, received a complaint from one of Judge Murphy's colleagues. Because her office appeared before the judge, she referred the matter to another prosecutor, Matt Chandler, who was the Republican candidate for state attorney general.
"This is not about one party or another," Mr. Chandler said in a telephone interview, pointing out that five of the witnesses are Democrats and the sixth is an independent. "It's about a judge who put a price tag on a judgeship."
A grand jury recently indicted Judge Murphy on felony charges of bribery and witness intimidation. On Friday, Judge Murphy pleaded not guilty at his own courthouse in Las Cruces and was released after posting $10,000 bail, handing over his passport and agreeing to stay away from witnesses in the case, avoid the courthouse and turn over any firearms.
"How absurd to suggest that any governor's selection of a state judge would be altered for any price, especially for a handful of dollars directed to a political party," Michael Stout, Judge Murphy's attorney, said in a statement on Saturday.
In an interview, Mr. Chandler indicated that Mr. Richardson might be questioned as part of the investigation.
"At this time, the investigation is directed at Mr. Murphy, but I can assure you that law enforcement are following leads involving other suspects," he said. "No one is off limits to get the truth."
Ms. Martinez released a statement earlier in the week saying the charges were serious and needed to be pursued. "The indictment of a sitting judge on charges that he paid bribes for his judicial appointment and solicited bribes from another judicial candidate is deeply troubling," Ms. Martinez said.
Judge Murphy has been suspended without pay by the State Supreme Court. A retired magistrate, Leslie Smith, was appointed to handle the case.
The matter dates to 2007 when Beverly Singleman, a former state appeals judge, contacted Judge Jim T. Martin of State District Court to discuss a vacancy on his court. She said that Judge Martin, a Richardson appointee, invited Judge Murphy along to a lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces and that he stayed largely silent during the meal as Judge Murphy laid out how political contributions were an essential part of the process. Judge Martin has not been charged, but was removed from hearing criminal cases last week.
After the meal, Ms. Singleman, a onetime Democrat who changed her registration to independent, took the matter to Judge Lisa C. Schultz of State District Court. Judge Schultz, a Richardson appointee, later confronted Judge Murphy about the accusations, once while taping the conversation.
Judge Schultz said she was hesitant to take the matter to the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates ethical complaints, because most of its members were appointed by Mr. Richardson.
Eventually, she took the complaint to Ms. Martinez, who was criticizing Mr. Richardson's tenure as ethically challenged in her campaign against Diane Denish, a Democrat who was Mr. Richardson's lieutenant governor.
New Mexico has a hybrid system of elected and appointed judges that is designed to reduce the role of politics. The governor picks judges from a list submitted by a nominating commission run by the University of New Mexico School of Law. Appointed judges then must face nonpartisan elections to keep their posts.
"I appointed judges through an extensive process, including a thorough vetting first by the judicial nominating commission and then by my legal staff of the candidates that were nominated to me," Mr. Richardson said in his statement.
He said he interviewed every candidate and based his appointments on merit. "I appointed 113 judges, including several Republicans, and the general consensus in the legal community is that we selected excellent judges who had to prove themselves to voters in elections," he said.
First Published May 22, 2011 12:01 am