New Mexico: Pay-to-play scandal figure denies any wrongdoing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- A Las Cruces businessman entangled into a pay-to-play scandal involving judicial appointments by former Gov. Bill Richardson says he did nothing wrong.

Edgar Lopez spoke to the Albuquerque Journal for a story published Sunday. He told the paper that allegations that he collected cash from lawyers to be funneled to Richardson's campaigns if they wanted to be appointed to judgeships were "absurd."

An incident report detailing a bribery investigation into District Judge Michael Murphy of Las Cruces says Murphy told another lawyer about the "pay-to-play" scheme. Murphy is alleged to have said that a lawyer seeking a judgeship should put money in an envelope and deliver it to Lopez every week.

Judge Murphy explained that Mr. Edgar Lopez was close friends with the governor and would hand-deliver the envelopes to him," according to the report.

Lopez said he cooperated with investigators working for the special prosecutor in the case, District Attorney Matt Chandler of Clovis.

"I opened up my computers to try and show them what they were trying to prove was ridiculous," he said. "We'll just have to let the process continue until the end."

Murphy pleaded not guilty on Friday to felony bribery charges in the ongoing investigation.

Lopez, 58, has not been charged with a crime. Richardson has denied that campaign contributions influenced his judicial appointments and called the allegation "outrageous and defamatory."

Lopez runs a real estate investment business called IMA Inc. He is portrayed by government investigators as a political power broker who helped secure appointments by Richardson for those wanting to serve on Dona Ana County courts.

Lopez, his wife and their business ventures contributed at least $54,700 to Richardson political campaigns from 2002 through 2007, according to state and federal campaign finance reports. They also handed out at least $33,000 in contributions to candidates for the Legislature, other statewide offices and the state Democratic Party from 2002 through 2009.

Lopez disputes the description of him as a power broker and said he doesn't fit in with the Santa Fe crowd. But his relationship with Richardson was close enough for the governor to call him when Lopez got a speeding ticket from a State Police officer.

"He was yelling at me to slow down when I drove," Lopez said. "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black," a reference to Richardson's penchant to being driven around the state at high speeds while governor.

Lopez worked on both of Richardson's campaigns for governor.

The son of immigrants, he built a successful real estate business, raised a family and became active in the Democratic Party.

"It's the American dream," Lopez said. "It's why my parents came to this country and worked so hard."

In the interview with the Journal, he did not want to discuss the judicial scandal in depth, but did make it clear he did not like what was being said.

"It's so unfair what's happening," Lopez said. "It's not how the process is supposed to work," insisting the grand jury process should be secret.

He said he is disappointed "in all the innuendo and the lying that has gone on."

"It's not just the prosecutors I'm blaming," he said. "I'm blaming the journalists for publishing things that are not true."

Lopez served on several judicial nominating commissions over the past eight years. Appointees are selected by the governor, legislative leadership, Supreme Court, judges and State Bar and presided over by the dean of the University of New Mexico Law School.

The commissions evaluate the applicants for judgeships and decide on the most qualified applicants. They then send the list to the governor, who names the judge.

That judge then has to stand for election and can face opposition either in primary or general elections.

Lopez said that after the commissions sent the lists, he would write a letter to the governor in support of one of the applicants on the list.

"I'm not the only person to do that," Lopez said. "I think it was common."

Lopez also was part of the Richardson transition team and a member of the committee that selected Gary Bland as state investment officer and said he is "outraged" by the long-running scandal involving the state's investments. Bland resigned after a subcommittee of the State Investment Council moved for a vote of no confidence.

Richardson also appointed Lopez to the Border Authority and the state Fire Protection Grant Council.

"I didn't take any per diem from those boards," Lopez said. "I saw it as a chance to give back to the community."

Published: Tue, May 24, 2011