Block to resign, admits felonies but could avoid prison
Deal spares taxpayers the expense of an impeachment trial; it also gives Block a chance to avoid having felony convictions on his permanent record if he completes drug treatment and meets other requirements
The political career of Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., which was plagued by scandal even before he was elected in 2008, is coming to an end.
Block agreed to resign and plead guilty to numerous felonies on Wednesday as part of a plea deal with the Attorney General’s Office involving multiple cases. The plea deal grants Block a conditional discharge, which means he could avoid jail time and have no felony convictions on his permanent record if he completes drug treatment and meets other requirements.
If Block fails to meet those requirements, he faces as many as 4.5 years in prison, The Associated Press is reporting.
His son’s guilty pleas means that the charges against former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Sr., who like the younger block faced felonies related to misusing the state’s public financing system, will be dropped.
As part of his plea deal, Block Jr., a Democrat, has also agreed to never again seek public office and to repay the state several thousand dollars for improper gas-card charges.
Attorney General Gary King touted the plea bargain in a news release as a deal that spares taxpayers the expense of an impeachment trial and called it “an important step… in the prosecution of government corruption in New Mexico.”
Block said nothing at his plea-bargain hearing in Santa Fe on Wednesday, according to multiple media outlets. His attorney, Carolyn Nichols, was quoted by the AP as saying the plea bargain was “the best thing he can do for the State of New Mexico at this point in time.”
The charges to which Block is admitting, from the AP:
“Block pleaded guilty in state district court to felony charges, including fraudulent use of a state-issued gasoline card and identity theft.
“He entered a plea of no contest to one charge of embezzlement for never returning a car from a Santa Fe automobile dealership that he got in July to have it checked by a mechanic before possibly buying it. Police later found and returned the car.
“He also is pleading guilty to three felony charges for violating campaign finance laws and embezzlement during his 2008 campaign.”
A tenure plagued by scandal
Block’s tenure has been plagued by scandal since he ran for office in 2008. While he was a candidate, the media caught Block being less than honest about his criminal history and education and lying about abusing the state’s public financing system and taxpayer dollars. At the time Block claimed the media was out to get him with “outright lies.”
Many, including me and some high-profile members of Block’s own party, said then that Block had no business being elected.
But voters in PRC District 3 chose Block over Green Party candidate Rick Lass (there was no Republican in the race). Within months, Block and his father were indicted on felony charges related to misusing the public financing system including embezzlement.
Both Blocks had been fighting those charges, until Wednesday, and Block spent nearly three years as an elected official making $90,000 a year.
In August, new scandals came to light that eventually pushed Block toward Wednesday’s plea deal. The state auditor and attorney general began looking into use of Block’s government-funded gas card after the public learned that it was used more than once in a day on a number of occasions, sometimes minutes apart at multiple gas stations. The AG started investigating the potential improper use of PRC employees’ gas cards by Block.
Police also investigated Block for potential auto theft after he took a vehicle from a Santa Fe dealership for a test drive on July 13 and never returned it. After it was reported stolen, police found the vehicle parked near downtown Santa Fe. To top it off, Block was also driving a state vehicle while his license was suspended.
Block later admitted an addiction to oxycodone, a pain reliever, but insisted that he would not resign. The House initiated impeachment proceedings earlier this month and was in the early stages of a process some said could cost taxpayers $1 million.
Instead, Block has 10 days to resign. Assuming he does, the House has no reason to continue impeachment proceedings.
‘It’s about time’
The Santa Fe New Mexican quoted Lass, Block’s 2008 opponent, as saying, “It’s about time.”
“The fact that he has been in office for three years and been guilty of this and everyone has known about it is a shame,” Lass said. “I don’t think anyone who is paying attention is surprised that he would misuse public funds after he was elected because he misused them before he was elected.”
Democratic Party of New Mexico Chairman Javier Gonzales said Block was “doing the right thing by stepping down from his seat. We hold our elected officials to a high standard and an expectation of accountability, and his resignation is just what was needed to uphold that standard and let the healing process begin.”
Gov. Susana Martinez will appoint someone to finish Block’s term, which runs through the end of 2012.
“The governor is glad that Mr. Block is stepping down. As you know, early on, the governor pointed to his serious pattern of misconduct as reason for why he was unable to effectively serve the public, and she is pleased that his constituents will soon have new representation,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell was quoted by the Albuquerque Journal as saying.
“The governor will appoint a replacement who will serve with integrity and represent the people of New Mexico well on the PRC,” Darnell said.
The New Mexican quoted Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks as saying there’s more to do than close the book on the Block scandal.
“If people look at this and say, ‘Block has resigned, problem fixed,’ that would be a mistake,” Marks said. “More than a third of commissioners in the history of the (Public Regulation Commission) since 1999 have had their service marred by significant scandals. The Legislature and the people of New Mexico need to look at structural change.”
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