Saturday, September 17, 2005

ROBERT VIGIL and MICHAEL MONTOYA

New Mexico papers, including The New Mexican will be full of stories about Friday's arrests of state Treasurer Robert Vigil and former state Treasurer Michael MOntoya on federal racketerring charges.

Here's some stuff I wrote about for Saturday's paper:

Versions of these stories were published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sept. 17, 2005

Politicians are nothing but a bunch of crooks wallowing in graft and corruption.

That’s the message that an already cynical public gets with cases like the arrests of state Treasurer Robert Vigil and former Treasurer Michael Montoya on federal extortion charges, according to several state political observers interviewed Friday.

The two are accused of taking about $700,000 in kickbacks from investment advisers.

“Right now in this country the public’s mood is quite dissatisfied with the government,” said F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. “These cases do tend to further the notion that politics is bad and politicians are corrupt. These things tend to confirm all (the public’s) suspicions.”

Garcia said public corruption cases tend to paint all the government with the same brush.

“It does lead to lowering people’s esteem for politics and government in general,” Garcia said. “It’s very unhealthy in a democracy. Public officials have the responsibility to be good examples.”

State Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim offered no moral support for his fellow Democrats Vigil and Montoya.

Through a spokesman, Wertheim said Friday, “Public corruption is a scourge that erodes the confidence of the citizenry. These charges are not to be taken lightly. If true they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

State Republicans said the arrests show the need for a stronger two-party system in the state, where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature. Democrats also hold the governor’s office and every other elected office in state government but land commissioner.

“When you have one party in control for 76 years, this kind of corruption is to be expected,” said state GOP Chairman Allen Weh in a written statement. “This is a wake up call for voters to insure they elect some Republicans to offices Democrats have held for years, and to throw any politician out of office when there is any hint of impropriety.”

Vigil is up for re-election next year. He hasn’t said whether he plans to run again.

“New Mexico should not be for sale,” said Marta Kramer, executive director of the state Republican Party. “Elected officials who use their position for personal gain violate the public trust. The voters of New Mexico have the responsibility to ensure that we have a healthy two party system.”

Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, said in a news release, “If these allegations are true, I am angry and disappointed that an elected official with such a high and grave responsibility would do something so reprehensible.”

But state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said Friday, “I don’t think it’s a black eye until they’re convicted. I hardly know these fellows, but it’s very unfair to say someone is giving the state a black eye before they’ve even been tried. Let the legal system do its job.”

McSorley, a lawyer, said the only people who see Vigil and Montoya’s arrest as an indictment on politicians in general are “the uneducated.”

“Most long-time New Mexicans will wait until they know what the facts are,” he said. “People realize that some investigations can be politically motivated.”

Gov. Bill Richardson was out of state Friday. A spokesman said his office had no comment on the arrests.

Richardson and Vigil both were elected as Democrats in 2002. When Richardson took power he appointed Vigil’s primary opponent Jan Goodwin.

Goodwin, during her tenure as state Board of Finance director in 2001, got into a political dispute with then Treasurer Montoya after the board rebuked Montoya a $400 million mutual-fund investment he made in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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Neither state Treasurer Robert Vigil nor former stranger Michael Montoya are strangers to controversy.

Both are ambitious politicians who have run for higher offices.

Both have a history of controversial dealings in public office.

And now both are facing 20 years in prison on federal racketeering charges.

Here’s a look at the political careers of both men.

Robert Vigil, 51, of Ribera is a certified public accountant who has a B.A. in accounting and business administration from New Mexico Highlands University.

He was elected state auditor in 1990, and was re-elected to a second term in 1994. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in the 1998 Democratic primary, he served as deputy state treasurer under Montoya for four years.

Vigil has been known to joke about old allegations against him. In a 2002 interview with a New Mexican reporter, Vigil, then running in a tough Democratic primary for state treasurer, said that he’s recently run into an old friend he hadn’t seen in a few years.

Vigil told his friend he could use the man’s support in the race. The man turned white, Vigil said.

“What’s wrong with you?” Vigil asked.

“Are you out of jail or what?” Vigil’s friend replied.

During the 2002 campaign, a 1999, a state audit of Vigil’s tenure as state auditor had been in the news.

The audit found possible violations of state laws, including the filtering of money to a former assistant through an accounting company and money being given to a nonprofit group headed by Vigil’s wife.

Then state police Chief Frank Taylor wrote that the audit showed “strong patterns of public corruption” existed at the state auditor’s office during Vigil’s reign.

No charges ever came from the allegations in the report.

Vigil dismissed the report as a “smear campaign” by his political enemies, including his successor, State Auditor Domingo Martinez. Attorney General Patricia Madrid said at the time that the audit “is not unbiased,” given the long-standing feud between Martinez and Vigil.

Though audit was an issue in the primary, Vigil was still able to win a plurality over Jan Goodwin, who was later named secretary of Taxation and Revenue by Gov. Bill Richardson, and a third opponent.

After taking office as treasurer, Vigil’s office was searched by the Secret Service, who had a warrant to look for evidence of counterfeiting.

One of Vigil’s employees — who never was charged with a crime — was under suspicion of printing money and passing it at businesses. The Secret Service confiscated a computer and printer used by the suspect.

There was no indication in the government’s affidavit that the investigation had anything to do with Vigil or the regular operations of the office.

Michael Montoya, 53, of Los Lunas, graduated from the University of Colorado in 1985. Five years later he made his first run for office, losing the Democratic primary for state treasurer in 1990.

He worked as a deputy state auditor under Vigil in the early ‘90s, including a stint as director of state's Medicaid Fraud Unit in state auditor's office. In 1994 he was elected to his first term as state treasurer, bring reelected four years later.

In 2000 he was the Democratic nominee for Second Congressional District seat, but lost to longtime incumbent Joe Skeen.

During that campaign season state police Montoya's office looking for documents to prove allegations that his brother Orlando Montoya had contributed embezzled money to his campaign for Congress.

Authorities said Orlando Montoya, a Los Lunas businessman, diverted more than $600,000 from a business partnership.

According to a police affidavit, Orlando Montoya told investigators he embezzled money and used it to pay personal and business debts, but some went to his brother's campaign.

Orlando Montoya pleaded guilty to embezzlement and forgery.

Michael Montoya threatened to sue the state Public Safety Department for the search.

Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Michael Montoya found himself on the hot seat at a meeting of the state Board of Finance.

The board voted 5 to 1 to find that Montoya acted improperly in a $400 million mutual fund investment he made in the wake of the Sept. 11. To follow the law, Montoya should have gotten the consent of the board before investing the money in a mutual fund.

The only vote against the motion was Montoya himself. He said the rebuke was politically motivated, though both Democrats and Republicans were critical.

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The case against Vigil and Montoya is only the latest instance of New Mexican state treasurers facing criminal charges related to allegations of financial wrongdoing.

In the past 30 years there have been at least two such cases.

In November 1985, state Treasurer Earl Hartley resigned from office after pleading guilty to misusing money for a Western State Treasurer’s Association conference in Santa Fe.

Hartley, a former state attorney general and state senator, as part of his plea agreement, was required to pay the association more than $4,300 that Hartley had used for hotel and golf resort charges, airplane tickets, meals, drinks, clothing, car rentals and tires.

In August 1975 deputy state Treasurer Jesse Kornegay resigned after being convicted of perjury. Kornegay had been state Treasurer until his term expired at the end of 1974.

He was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury that was investigating illegal political campaign contributions to Kornegay, an unsuccessful candidate in the 1972 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

Kornegay served less than half of his 22-month sentence at a federal prison in Arizona. He then came back to Santa Fe, where he got another state job, an administrative aide for the state Mobile Housing Commission.

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