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The last time I saw former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, now Rebecca Giron, it was in a hotel ladies room during some event. She was running for Congress, and greeted everyone, including me, with a hug.
Warm and charming, the 11th generation New Mexican was always in campaign mode. Giron had worked her way up the political ladder, served three terms as Secretary of State, and gained some national prominence as a Hispanic female elected official.
At the time, you couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing a commercial of Giron explaining voting procedures, endlessly and repetitively. It seemed like a dubious use of taxpayer dollars and an obvious tool in her political campaign. Republicans complained that the ads were simply a way for Giron to enhance her name recognition.
She lost the campaign to Steve Schiff, but found a post in Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. The commercials might have faded away except that her successor, Secretary of State Mary Herrera, found gaps in the records and asked federal auditors to take a look.
In 2007, the United States Election Assistance Commission performed an audit, the only one needed among all the states, and asked the state attorney general for help. The commission’s inspector general found in 2008 that from 2004 to 2006 the secretary of state paid the advertising firm of Amando Gutierrez nearly $6.3 million from the federal Help America Vote Act for a voter education campaign, and more than $3.6 million couldn’t be accounted for.
Prosecutors would say later that Vigil authorized a $2 million payment to Gutierrez one day after signing the contract on invoices without supporting documents, she produced a backdated contract amendment in violation of the state procurement code, and Gutierrez generated phony invoices.
Eventually, four people were hauled before federal and/or state courts: Giron; Gutierrez, a Texas political consultant whose client list included a lot of Democratic bigwigs; and Joe and Daisy Kupfer, consultants to Gutierrez. Daisy was an employee of the attorney general’s office, and her husband was a lobbyist.
In state District Court in 2009, each was indicted on 50 counts of conspiracy, fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and soliciting, or paying a kickback.
Gutierrez and the Kupfers were convicted in one or both courts; Giron walked away. Investigators following the money found nothing leading to Giron. A state district court judge dismissed cases against the two women because the process dragged past the 18 months prescribed by the Supreme Court.
The delays were many: Disqualifying AG Gary King for conflicts of interest, the death of one key witness, the involvement of multiple judges. And defense attorneys played their hands well.
Last month, federal Judge William P. Johnson sentenced Joseph Kupfer to 10 years in prison for stealing $746,375 in federal Help America Vote Act money. Johnson observed that Giron wasn’t indicted, but “she was involved.” Gutierrez was sentenced in August to 10 years for conspiracy to overbill the Secretary of State’s Office. Gutierrez was ordered to give up the fancy home he bought with his first check from the Secretary of State. Daisy Kupfer was sentenced in May to three years for tax evasion.
Last week Gutierrez died of an apparent heart attack, one day before he would begin serving his sentence. The Kupfers will appeal their cases.
Giron has insisted throughout that she did nothing wrong, that she’s the object of political skullduggery and the others were wrongly accused. But an audit’s an audit. That part is black and white, but the lumbering legal procedures conferred neither guilt nor innocence on Giron. Maybe she’s only guilty of being gullible, of listening to the Siren song of a promoter who promised her political success — on government money the schemers assumed nobody was watching.