SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that an ethical violation by a public official isn’t a crime. Their ruling focused on four high-profile cases that were all charged under a new statute passed by the legislature.
The state supreme court ruling reverses the appeals court, which stated the ethics legislation created a criminal charge. The supreme court heard the case in January. They were deciding whether the law for an ethics charge was written so loosely that it shouldn’t be used as a criminal statute.
Four high-profile public officials asked for clarification from the supreme court over criminal charges for ethics violations. They argue the statute was merely a set of guidelines for how public officials should behave.
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First was former tax and revenue secretary Demisia Padilla who used her role to suppress an investigation that would have exposed her crimes of embezzlement. Former Dona Ana County treasurer David Gutierrez is accused of pursuing a relationship with an employee. Former 6th judicial district attorney Francesca Estevez is suspected of trying to intimidate officers investigating her for using a state-owned vehicle and driving while intoxicated, and former San Juan County magistrate judge Connie Lee Johnston was accused of secretly recording people inside the courthouse.
The attorney general’s office argued that the law that states public employees shall not use their power for personal benefit is perfectly clear. “It serves the purpose of the intention of the legislature for this legislation to have public confidence in government,” said Walter Hart with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
NM AG Hector Balderas said on Monday that he is disappointed with the supreme court decision because it took away their ability to prosecute public officials who use their office for their own gain. Padilla is appealing her conviction on embezzlement charges. The ruling dismisses the criminal ethics charges against all four.