SANTA FE, N.M. – The whiff of scandal cost Democrat Bill Richardson a job in President Barack Obama's administration, but the former New Mexico governor's reputation and political legacy are threatened again because of federal and state investigations into separate pay-to-play schemes, including allegations that campaign contributions influenced his appointment of judges.
Richardson has denied any wrongdoing, just as he did two years ago when he withdrew his nomination as commerce secretary because of a federal grand jury investigation into the awarding of a state contract to a political donor.
That investigation ended with no charges against Richardson or his top aides, but the cloud from pay-to-play allegations never went away during the rest of Richardson's term. If anything, the cloud darkened in New Mexico where there's been a steady stream of news reports during the past two years about another federal investigation — this one focusing on state investments — and the possibility of corruption in the Richardson administration.
A new development came last month when a state grand jury indicted a Richardson-appointed judge for bribery. According to a report by prosecution investigators, the judge told a lawyer and others that they needed to make significant campaign contributions if they wanted to be selected for a judgeship by Richardson.
The judge has pleaded not guilty, and no charges have been announced against a local Democratic activist who was portrayed by investigators as the bagman for the contributions to Richardson.
Richardson denies that contributions ever influenced his selection of judges and said suggestions to the contrary were "outrageous and defamatory."
"None of this has distracted Gov. Richardson," said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the former two-term governor.
Richardson left the governorship in January with no immediate plans for another race for elective office, but like many politicians he refused to close the door permanently on the possibility of a future political campaign
In recent months, he has kept a low-profile in New Mexico but the former congressman and diplomatic troubleshooter has remained busy on the lecture circuit, in foreign affairs and has joined the boards of environmental groups and other organizations.
He became a special envoy to the Organization of American States and was a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. He also is establishing a foreign policy center that will focus on Latin America, rescuing hostages and conflict resolution.
Most recently, Richardson was in Peru as part of an OAS election monitoring delegation for the country's upcoming presidential runoff.
Unless Richardson is charged with a crime, the former governor's reputation in national and foreign policy circles is unlikely to be sullied by the pay-to-play allegations that have generated local headlines in New Mexico, according to Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
"The skills he brings to the table ... a great sense of how to interact with people and how to negotiate, those don't go away," Ornstein said in an interview. "If he's out there in the middle of something where he has already built up some credibility, in a place like North Korea or if he has the imprimatur of the U.S. government, which is what some of these negotiations have had, none of this stuff would make a difference."
There's long been a disconnect between Richardson's image nationally, where he's often remembered as an affable, gregarious candidate in the 2008 presidential race, and his standing in New Mexico, where his approval ratings had plummeted by the time he left office.
What remains unclear in New Mexico is whether the drumbeat of public corruption allegations will stir up voters when they cast ballots in 2012. No state offices like governor are up for election but seats in the Legislature and Congress are up for grabs.
Democrats hold majorities in the state House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is pushing an agenda that's forced Democrats to cast politically difficult votes, including on her proposal to repeal a Richardson-backed policy of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
However, it will be difficult for Republicans to transform allegations about Richardson into a generic political weapon against Democrats, according to Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
In part, that's because New Mexicans are familiar with the pay-to-play theme that's appeared in news reports during Richardson's tenure and is at the heart of the disclosures in the judicial bribery probe. Without an indictment of the former governor or one of his close aides, little has changed.
"You have got to have something concrete. People respond to real things," said Atkeson.
Otherwise, voters hear the allegations and "they just go, 'Oh well, that's another partisan thing.' It either fits in with their frame of thinking already or it doesn't, and they pretty much reject it unless it's something new and they have to think about it," she said.
Democrats remain suspicious about the probe of judicial bribery because there's a Martinez connection. Before her election as governor, Martinez was district attorney in the county where the corruption allegations surfaced. She appointed a Republican prosecutor from part of the state to handle the investigation last year because her office had to continue working with local judges.
When Martinez ran for governor, her campaign flogged the Richardson administration and made it a symbol for government excess and corruption.
"It is obvious that this latest investigation, considering the timing, was launched and publicized in order to enhance the reputation of Susana Martinez and Matt Chandler," said Gallegos.
Chandler is the special prosecutor in the bribery probe and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general last year.
Federal investigators started looking at the Richardson administration in 2008 because of the hiring of a political donor for a lucrative contract as a financial adviser on state transportation bond deals. In August 2009, then U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt sent a letter to defense lawyers confirming that no charges would be brought but he said the investigation "revealed that pressure from the governor's office resulted in the corruption of the procurement process" in the bond work contracting.
By the time that investigation ended, another had started. It focuses on possible influence-peddling in the awarding of state investment deals.
No charges have been announced, but in early May the pay-to-play allegations took on new life when a New Mexico agency once under the governor's control — the State Investment Council — sued Richardson's former state investment officer and more than a dozen other brokers and Richardson political supporters.
The lawsuit said a Richardson "friend, fundraiser and confidante" pushed the state to make investments "that would benefit politically-connected individuals, many of whom made and solicited others to make contributions, directly or indirectly, to or for the benefit of Gov. Richardson's election campaigns."
The man's son shared in $22 million in fees as a third-party marketer for money managers selected to handle state investments.
In response to the lawsuit, Gallegos said "Richardson remains confident that all investments by SIC were first properly vetted" by financial analysts and "made with the best interests of the state in mind."