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OUT WEST ROUNDUP | Ex-New Mexico official pleads guilty to embezzlement, perjury

Author: Associated Press - August 31, 2018 - Updated: September 13, 2018

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In this Nov. 14, 2017, file photo, former New Mexico state Sen. Phil Griego testifies at his own trial on corruption charges in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

NEW MEXICO

Ex-state senator pleads guilty to embezzlement, perjury

SANTA FE — Former New Mexico state Sen. Phil Griego has pleaded guilty to embezzlement and perjury charges for misspending and falsely reporting campaign account activity, lengthening his ongoing stay in prison.

Attorney General Hector Balderas announced that Griego, a Democrat, was sentenced to an additional year based on two felony counts of perjury and two felony counts of embezzlement.

Griego, 70, began serving an 18-month sentence in March on fraud, bribery and felony ethical violations stemming from allegations that he used his position as a lawmaker to profit from the sale of a state-owned building.

It’s the latest in a string of high-profile corruption scandals involving New Mexico public officials.

A former head of New Mexico’s Taxation and Revenue Department, Demesia Padilla, was charged in June with embezzlement and multiple corruption and ethics violations in her role as Cabinet secretary under Republican Gov. Susan Martinez.

Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned in 2015 and served 30 days in jail on embezzlement and fraud convictions. She pleaded guilty to spending campaign funds on a gambling spree.

NEW MEXICO

Oil boom may provide windfall to state, public schools

SANTA FE — A surge in New Mexico’s income linked to an oil boom may give legislators an extra $1.2 billion to work with as they craft the next annual budget, state economists have announced.

The windfall comes as New Mexico officials grapple with a court order to shore up funding for public schools to meet basic educational standards and a recent downgrade of the state’s credit rating based on mounting public pension liabilities.

Economists from three state agencies and the Legislature reported a nearly 15 percent increase in general fund revenues for the fiscal year that ended June 30 — a growth rate the state has not seen in more than a decade. Oil production gains on relatively high energy prices are expected to continue, driving continued growth in state government income, the forecast stated.

Tax revenue and other government income is expected to surpass annual spending obligations by $1.2 billion during the fiscal year that begins in July 2019, according to a report. General fund spending for the current fiscal year is set at $6.3 billion.

The income outlook marks a sharp turnaround in state finances. A little more than a year ago, Gov. Susana Martinez and state lawmakers scrambled during a special legislative session to close a budget gap linked to the lingering effects of a downturn in oil prices.

Staff economists are recommending that lawmakers set aside reserves equal to 20 percent of annual general fund spending obligations and restore money to state accounts that were depleted after the 2016 oil bust.

A state judge ruled in July that New Mexico was violating the rights of students by failing to provide adequate overall funding for public schools — neglecting in particular students from low-income and Native American families — without specifying how the state should address the issue.

UTAH

Mormon Church ramps up opposition to medical pot

The Mormon Church has been playing a quiet role in the fight against an effort to legalize medical marijuana in Utah, releasing measured statements and helping bankroll lawsuits.

But now, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have come out from behind the scenes.

“We are deeply concerned by the history of other states that have allowed medical and recreational use of this drug … and have experienced serious consequences to the health of its citizens,” Elder Jack N. Gerard, flanked by politicians, medical professionals and other church leaders, said at a news conference Aug. 23 at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City.

His comments marked the first time an official from the Mormon Church — which has deep roots in business and politics in Utah — has made a public appearance to voice opposition to Proposition 2, a ballot measure that voters will consider in November.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed two-thirds of voters in Utah support Proposition 2. But more public opposition from the church could change that in a state where more than 60 percent of residents identify as Mormon.

Thirty states, including Colorado, allow the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes, and supporters of the Utah measure say the effort was born out of compassion for those suffering from chronic pain.

Opponents have characterized Proposition 2 as a dangerous step on the path toward legalizing recreational pot, as has occurred in eight other states, including Colorado and California.

WYOMING

State rebuffs Trump, picks native son in GOP governor race

CHEYENNE — President Donald Trump tried his best to appeal to coal country, but amid a truckload of bad political news, the top coal-producing state didn’t love him back.

Instead, Wyoming voters on Aug. 21 chose State Treasurer Mark Gordon, a rancher who grew up at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, over political mega-donor Foster Friess in the state’s Republican primary for governor.

Calling Friess “Strong on Crime, Borders & 2nd Amendment,” Trump had endorsed Friess on Twitter as voting got underway. But Wyoming voters had their own ideas.

“This is a governor’s race. This is about the state of Wyoming,” Gordon said after winning his six-way primary. “President Trump is doing great things that are important for Wyoming in terms of getting our economy going, and all of that. But in the end, I think people in Wyoming concentrated on who’s got the experience, who’s got the record and who’s got the best message going forward for Wyoming.”

Trump won Wyoming by a wide margin in 2016. But his support here may be seen as a mile wide and an inch deep. After all, Wyoming Republicans by far preferred another candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination that year.

Wyoming could even choose a Democrat again. Attorney and former state Rep. Mary Throne, who was raised on a ranch not far from Gordon’s and beat three others to win the Democratic nomination for governor, will be a formidable opponent, Gordon said.

KANSAS

Kobach once said voter fraud in primary was unclear; in victory, he dismisses it

As uncertainty loomed about the outcome of the GOP primary for governor in the days after the Aug. 7 primary, Kris Kobach said it was unclear how many non-citizens voted in the election.

Back then, the race was too close to call.

But now, more than a week after he secured a 350-vote victory over Gov. Jeff Colyer, Kobach is dismissing concerns that voter fraud could have changed the election’s outcome.

In a Breitbart column, Kobach writes that his race against Colyer “was the closest in modern history in Kansas.”

But he maintains that “it is highly unlikely that voter fraud changed the outcome,” despite telling The Kansas City Star during the weeklong post-election feud between him and Colyer when a winner was undecided that it was unclear how many “non-citizens” voted in the Republican primary.

In the column, Kobach uses Kansas as an example of why strict voting measures, such as voter ID and a proof-of-citizenship law, which he describes as being “on hold” in the state, help voters have faith in election results.

The proof-of-citizenship law that Kobach describes as being on hold was actually struck down by a federal judge in June.

Asked how the column squares with his earlier statement days after the election, Kobach said in an email that the time frame between the judge’s decision and the primary election was key.

“The judge’s decision opened the window for non-citizens to register after her opinion; however, that window has only been open for a few months. It is unlikely that a decisive number of non-citizens were able to register illegally in that short time span,” Kobach said.

That argument was challenged by Dale Ho, the lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union legal team that defeated Kobach in the proof-of-citizenship case.

“Secretary Kobach — who infamously stated that he doesn’t know the true winner of the 2016 popular vote for president — is apparently confident about the integrity of an election only when he is the winner of that election,” Ho said in an email.

Associated Press

Associated Press