The Upside Of Sleaze

State Treasurers' Prosecution Is Good News

Jim Scarantino
5 min read
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The arrests of New Mexico State Treasurer Robert Vigil and his predecessor, Michael Montoya, brought a big smile to my face.

Sure, news that our state investments have been churned to generate a multimillion dollar slush fund should infuriate us, not lift our spirits. Between the culture of patron politics, the pestilence of corporate campaign contributions and the outright purchase of some politicians, many of us consider corruption a kind of constant background noise. We're so resigned to a degree of corruption in all corners of government, we almost accept it as a quaint aspect of New Mexico folklore.

But when you think about what's really at stake, you can start feeling downright hopeless. We've had a mayor caught accepting graft, who still managed to receive the endorsement of the Albuquerque Journal and Albuquerque Tribune. We've had city councilors beholden to income from hidden sources. We've seen Republican leaders openly squeeze lobbyists to pay the wedding expenses of a Republican state senator. Using campaign funds as walking-around money, and even living expenses, is a well-known practice of several South Valley politicos, some of whom don't seem to have any other means of support. And we regularly see big campaign donors and generous lobbyists cast spells over legislators to help them forget whom they were elected to represent.

You don't have to look very hard for no-bid contracts with matching campaign contributions. Sons lobby fathers who hold key positions in the Legislature, and no one bats an eye. Our County Commission grants tax abatements for a project on land owned by a fellow commissioner. And the beat goes on.

“It's how we do business in New Mexico,” is the most notorious line heard yet from the cesspool the treasurer's office became under Montoya and Vigil. Put that to music, and we might just have ourselves a new state song.

Not so fast. There's a hell of a lot of honest, dedicated, hardworking public servants out there, more than enough to overshadow the likes of Montoya and Vigil and their crew of bagmen and money launderers. That's why news of their indictment got me grinning. It reminded me of the good guys we've got on our side.

Start with the man driving this prosecution, United States Attorney David Iglesias. Regardless of party affiliation, New Mexicans are fortunate he's in charge. Iglesias is not only a very fine lawyer with excellent judgment, but also a man of great integrity. From his early days in the Special Prosecutions Division of the Attorney General's Office (where I first met him), Iglesias has always demonstrated the very best qualities in a public sector lawyer.

Then there's Gov. Bill Richardson. A large team of state investigators helped the FBI bring the case together. His administration's cooperation has immunized this prosecution from being attacked as politically motivated. That he would take on two powerful members of his own party, as well as the ranks of their supporters and relatives, speaks highly of Richardson's courage and honor.

We've been lucky to elect other men and women who help take the stench out of the word politician. Our two senators, Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, are models of probity. The same goes for Reps. Heather Wilson and Tom Udall. Whether you agree with them or not, the honesty of these officials is above reproach.

If you venture into the Roundhouse, and don't let the crush of lobbyists and backroom operators overwhelm you, you will find men and women working through the weary hours of the night who ask nothing in return except the satisfaction of knowing they have served the public as best they can.

Though we have fun at their expense in these pages occasionally (all right … most every week), you will also find people of the highest quality among our City Council and, to a slowly increasing extent, on our County Commission. Of the thousands of public employees in state and local government, the overwhelming majority are decent people truly working for the public interest.

You've got to wonder how these good folks can keep going day after day and not become demoralized by all the sleaze. But somehow they do, and for that they deserve our gratitude, admiration and all the help they can get.

So when I read of the press conference held by Iglesias, announcing that, assisted by 70 FBI agents and 15 investigators for the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue, the U.S. Department of Justice had broken a ring of corruption that siphoned off millions of dollars and spanned two administrations of the New Mexico State Treasurer, well, I just had to smile. It proved the good guys are still out there fighting for us. They've already shut down the kickback factory in the Treasurer's office, and there's more good news to come. Iglesias promises, “This investigation is just beginning.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail

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