Anna Crook: Guest Columnist
The New Mexico House of Representatives performed admirably in considering whether to impeach the state treasurer. The process followed by the House was fair, and it was properly halted when the subject of the investigation resigned.
Treasurer Robert Vigil was arrested on federal charges just weeks before the Legislature convened in a special session to consider tax relief and energy assistance. The House of Representatives, which has the sole power to impeach state officials for malfeasance, crimes and misdemeanors, immediately took up the issue during the special session by creating a bipartisan subcommittee to inquire into the allegations and make a recommendation on whether the House should impeach the state treasurer.
The subcommittee had a big job and a tight, self-imposed deadline: Gather and review all the relevant evidence and make a recommendation in less than three weeks.
The subcommittee, which was co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican, immediately hired former Supreme Court Justice Paul Kennedy as its special counsel. Justice Kennedy began gathering evidence, even flying to California to take the videotaped testimony of a financial expert and a white-collar crime expert. On Oct. 26 — less than three weeks after the subcommittee was formed — the subcommittee met to consider the evidence. During the course of the day we reviewed sworn affidavits, watched secretly recorded videos and heard the testimony of two experts.
We conducted all of our work that day in public except at the end of the day, when we met privately with Justice Kennedy to hear his legal advice to us.
During that last part of the day, just before 5 p.m., Vigil resigned as state treasurer.
The subcommittee got the word of Vigil’s resignation about the same time everyone else did; it came less than 48 hours before the full Legislature was scheduled to meet in extraordinary session to consider whether he should be impeached.
The ultimate purpose of an impeachment as provided in our constitution is to remove a bad public official from office. If the House impeaches an official, that person is prohibited under the state constitution from exercising any of the powers and duties of office until acquitted by the Senate. In other words, the official is out of office until the Senate acquits.
If the Senate convicts the official, the official is permanently removed from office and forever denied the right to hold office or vote. The procedure is a political process, designed not to punish an official for wrongdoing but to remove the official from office. The impeachment process is separate from criminal or civil processes, which are designed to punish people if warranted.
With Vigil’s resignation, the subcommittee began considering its next course of action, and a report will be presented to the House when it convenes in January. Some people would argue the subcommittee, and ultimately the full House, should have proceeded to impeach Vigil even after he resigned.
However, the wiser course of action was to stop the process at that point. The ultimate goal of an impeachment had already been achieved: Vigil was out of office.
The extraordinary session scheduled to begin on Oct. 28 would likely have lasted several days, at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of about $45,000 per day. A trial in the Senate would have lasted even longer.
All of this expense would have come on the heels of a seven-day special session earlier in the month.
The House of Representatives did the right thing by quickly and fairly considering the impeachment of Vigil, and the House acted just as wisely to end the process when Vigil resigned, sparing the taxpayers from having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve the same result.
State Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, can be contacted at 763-4108 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org