- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Declaring it “won’t take weeks, but months,” a panel of New Mexico lawmakers investigating fraud, embezzlement and money laundering charges against Secretary of State Dianna Duran gave the committee’s bipartisan co-chairs the authority on Monday to hire a lawyer to begin a formal process for possibly removing the embattled Republican from office.

The House Special Investigatory Committee gathered at the State Capitol in Santa Fe as part of impeachment proceedings and met briefly for around an hour. The bipartisan panel discussed hiring of special legal counsel, rules for the investigation and a hearing schedule.

Committee co-chair Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, called the panel “solemn” and promised transparency throughout.

“This is not something we enjoy doing,” Cook said.

The Legislative Council recently cleared the way for the committee to begin its work by providing $250,000 to finance the effort.

Cook and fellow co-chair Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said they hoped to hire a lawyer by the end of the week. That attorney will look into the allegations against Duran and will help if the committee votes to bring charges of impeachment before the New Mexico Senate.

“We need a really good attorney who is experienced for a trial,” Chasey said.

Duran, who is serving her second term as the state’s top elections official, has pleaded not guilty to 64 counts that range from fraud and embezzlement to money laundering and tampering with state records. She’s accused of funneling campaign donations to personal bank accounts and withdrawing large sums of money while at casinos around the state.

She has pleaded not guilty to charges in state court and has refused to comment on the case.

Chasey said the committee doesn’t have subpoena powers but the full House of Representatives does. For impeachment proceedings to proceed beyond the committee’s work, the Legislature must be in session or in “extraordinary session.”

Duran’s attorney, Erlinda Johnson, recently filed a request seeking to push back a deadline next month for filing motions in the criminal case and a preliminary hearing that’s scheduled for late October.

Johnson told The Associated Press that she filed the motion following a cursory review of information provided by the attorney general’s office, which included more than 3,000 pages of documents, an analysis of banking information and numerous audio files with hours of interviews.

Chasey said the criminal case against Duran is separate for the impeachment proceedings and she can be removed from office before her criminal case is complete.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras.

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