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Originally published Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 1:38 AM

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Plea hearing in bribery case linked to Richardson

The allegations against retired state District Judge Michael Murphy were startling, even in a state known for its political scandals.

Associated Press

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —

The allegations against retired state District Judge Michael Murphy were startling, even in a state known for its political scandals.

The judge told a potential judicial candidate she would need to make payments to a Democratic political activist if she wanted a seat on the bench, a report from prosecutors said. The money, he said, would then be funneled to former Gov. Bill Richardson.

It was one of a string of investigations into alleged pay-to-play activities with ties to Richardson, whose 2008 nomination to Cabinet post in President Barack Obama's administration was scuttled by a federal probe of state investment activities.

It was the only case that resulted in criminal charges. And after two years, it appears to have collapsed into a plea bargain that will reduce four felony charges to a single misdemeanor charge of conduct unbecoming a public official.

The agreement would end 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.

Richardson has called the accusations "outrageous and defamatory." Lopez called them "absurd." Murphy was suspended from the bench, and then retired, but has always maintained his innocence.

Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler, an ally of Gov. Susana Martinez and a rising star in GOP, promised the indictment was just the beginning of an aggressive investigation.

Attorneys in the case have declined comment on a change-of-plea hearing scheduled Thursday afternoon on the charges pending against 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.

A motion filed after the plea hearing was set says Murphy agrees not to contest the misdemeanor charge "contingent upon the state agreeing to certain conditions."

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, who is district attorney for Curry and Roosevelt counties, as special prosecutor to investigate the case.

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.

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