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Updated: Thursday, 29 Sep 2011, 12:04 PM MDT
Published : Saturday, 23 Jul 2011, 11:53 AM MDT
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The arrest of Albuquerque's chief criminal judge on charges he raped a prostitute is just the latest example of a seemingly Wild West-no-rules-attitude permeating numerous levels of authority in New Mexico.
Just this year, the mayor, police chief and a trustee of the small border town of Columbus were accused of helping smuggle hundreds of guns into the Mexico. A judge in Las Cruces was charged in a bribery scandal with alleged ties to former Gov. Bill Richardson. The Albuquerque police department has been under increased scrutiny for an escalation in questionable police shootings of unarmed civilians. One of its officers is facing charges that he killed his wife to hide his involvement in a car theft ring. And the city's public safety director just quit amidst a probe of his handling of a car accident involving his wife.
Additionally, one of the state's most distinguished professors was recently accused of helping run a sophisticated online prostitution ring. The former Santa Fe sheriff last week pleaded guilty to embezzlement. And several pay-to-play investigations continue into dealings of former Richardson administration officials and others close to the Democrat who ran the state for eight years.
This just to cite several recent, prominent examples.
Whether or not the headline-making cases are the result of systemic flaws within the state's culture of politics and leadership is a topic of endless debate in this arid, mostly rural border state of two million that attracts a mix of celebrities and the wealthy to its mountains and artistic enclaves like Santa Fe and Taos.
"You've got corruption all over the place," said Doug Turner, who chaired the commission that oversees judicial conduct from 1995 to 2002. "We just have a unique brand of it.'"
"We are big state with not very many people. And so communities are tight. People know one another. They get involved in each other's lives, in their political campaigns. They go to events. It's a fairly small group of people. The impact feels significantly greater in that environment."
Indeed, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez capitalized on a backlash against a growing round of allegations of pay-to-play in the Richardson administration, successfully campaigning last year to return honesty and integrity to the state after two-terms under Richardson. Richardson himself has never been charged but his name has surfaced in a number of investigations.
And the GOP is already bringing the anti-corruption soap box back around in its attempts to turn the purple state red in next year's elections, putting out a press release Thursday touting Republican District Attorney Matt Chandler's conviction of "another corrupt public official."
Chandler of Clovis handled the case against Democratic Santa Fe Sheriff Greg Solano, who pleaded guilty to selling some $74,000 worth of county equipment on eBay.
Ironically, the arrest of state District Judge Pat Murdoch Tuesday on sexual penetration and witness intimidation charges came just days after Martinez — in an address to a meeting of the state bar — called on the state's judges and lawyers to take steps to help bolster confidence in the legal system. She cited the Las Cruces case in which state District Judge Michael Murphy is accused of telling a potential judicial candidate that she needed to make payments to a Democratic activist close to Richardson if she wanted to be considered for a seat on the bench.
Turner said it was unclear to him if the arrest of Murdoch Tuesday and the case against Judge Murphy in Las Cruces signaled a rise in judicial wrongdoing.
"I can tell you from my eight years on the commission, there are a lot of issues in the judicial system in the state," said Turner, who ran against Martinez in last year's Republican primary. "I don't think it's better, but I can't say it's getting worse. They might be getting more press coverage because of the salacious nature of the charges. In reality, we've had some very good judges who've done some very stupid things."
Turner said many of the problems with the state judiciary have to do with the lower level courts, magistrate judges "who aren't necessarily legal professionals and therefore have a tendency to become very important people in small communities. The result is sometimes the abuse of authority."
Less common, he said, are infractions at the district court or higher levels.
Tony Scarborough, a retired state Supreme Court Justice, said he thinks the system works just fine.
"I have my doubts about the merit of the charges," he said of the Murdoch case.
Police acknowledged the prostitute — who videotaped one of what she said were eight alleged encounters with the judge — may have been trying to extort from the judge and may herself face charges. She has accused him of performing oral sex on her over her objections and attempts to push him away.
Vice Sgt. Matt Thompson told the Albuquerque Journal he believes the case against Murdoch is credible.
But Murdoch's attorney, Ahmed Assad, said his client will be vindicated.
Several other members of the judiciary have also found themselves on the wrong side of the law in recent years, including Appeals Court Judge Robert Robles, who resigned this year after being arrested for drunken driving and Bernalillo County Metro Court Judge Victoria Grant, who retired in 2010 after being charged with 21 counts of misconduct, mostly involving allegations she mistreated defendants.
Asked if he thought the state's historical political reputation for corruption filtered down to the bench and other posts of authority, Turner said, "Absolutely. Power corrupts."
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