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Plea hearing set in NM judicial bribery case

Jeri Clausing, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- A change of plea hearing is scheduled for a retired Las Cruces judge accused of funneling bribes to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for judicial appointments.

Attorneys in the case have declined comment on whether a deal has been reached to reduce the four felony counts pending against former state District Judge Michael Murphy. But documents filed with the court show prosecutors and the defense have agreed to have a new charge filed against Murphy — this one a misdemeanor count of misconduct by a public official.

An agreement to knock four felonies down to a misdemeanor charge would mark the collapse of a high-profile case that shocked the judiciary two years ago when prosecutors implied the bribes were part of a long-running practice under which Murphy and other judges worked with southern New Mexico Democratic activist Edgar Lopez to choose new judges for the district.

A motion filed with the court earlier this month states that the "Defendant agrees not to contest a violation of the charge and will not challenge in any way the constitutionality or other legitimacy of the misdemeanor charge under the Governmental Conduct Act, contingent upon the State agreeing to certain conditions."

And the court docket shows a change of plea hearing is scheduled for next Thursday afternoon.

Richardson has called the accusations "outrageous and defamatory." Lopez called them "absurd."

In the days after the indictments were filed, Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler and Gov. Susana Martinez said an aggressive investigation had just begun.

But no one else was ever charged in the case. And although he resigned his seat after being suspended, Murphy's attorney has always vehemently maintained the judge's innocence.

Reached about a possible plea agreement on Thursday, Lopez, a real estate investor in Las Cruces, said he didn't want to see the case settled "because the truth will set you free."

He said he was vilified, "when I didn't do anything."

The allegations date to 2007, when potential judicial candidate Beverly Singleman said she sought advice from state District Judge James Martin on how to get her name on the list for appointment to a vacancy on the bench. During a lunch with Martin and Murphy, Singleman said that Murphy told her she needed to make weekly contributions to Lopez, who funneled the money to then Gov. Richardson.

Singleman reported the conversation. Martinez was Dona Ana County district attorney at the time and running to replace Richardson when she appointed Chandler, an ally and rising star in the state GOP, as special prosecutor to investigate the case. Chandler is district attorney for Curry and Roosevelt counties.

Richardson was not running for re-election because of term limits, but Martinez campaigned hard on cleaning up corruption in state government and made Richardson the poster child for everything that was wrong in New Mexico.