Cammie Nichols and Jerome Block Jr. listen as charges are read by the prosecution dur[auth] ing a hearing on Block Jr.’s election fraud case in Judge Michael Vigil’s courtroom Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in Santa Fe, N.M. Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. is resigning as part of a Wednesday plea agreement with the attorney general’s office over the misuse of taxpayer money and election law violations. (AP Photo/The Santa Fe New Mexican, Natalie Guillen)
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. is resigning as part of a plea agreement Wednesday with the attorney general’s office over the misuse of taxpayer money and election law violations.
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. He will appear in court later on that part of the plea arrangement because indictments against Block in the election laws case currently are on appeal. The plea deal ends the appeal and the case will be sent back to the district court.
“He decided this was the best thing he can do for the state of New Mexico at this point in time,” Block’s attorney, Carolyn Nichols, said after Wednesday’s hearing.
Block declined to talk to reporters and he made no statement to the court, other than answering brief questions from the judge.
Attorney General Gary King called Block’s plea and resignation “another important step” in the prosecution of government corruption in New Mexico.
The plea deal was announced in state district court in Santa Fe and came a little more than a month before a legislative panel was to meet and decide whether Block should be impeached.
Nichols said she was preparing a letter of resignation for Block, but the plea agreement calls for him to resign within 10 days.
Block also will pay restitution, undergo drug treatment and has agreed never to seek public office again. He faces up to 4 1/2 years behind bars, but he likely will avoid serving time in prison if he meets requirements of the treatment program.
Block, an Espanola Democrat, was elected in 2008 to represent PRC District 3, which includes Santa Fe and much of north-central and northeastern New Mexico. The job pays $90,000 a year.
The five-member commission regulates utilities, telecommunications and insurance.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will appoint a replacement for Block to serve the remainder of his term through next year, when the PRC position is up for election.
Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said Martinez was pleased that Block is leaving office and she will appoint a replacement “who will serve with integrity and represent the people of New Mexico well on the PRC.”
Block was indicted in 2009 on felony charges for violating state election laws. He paid fines in 2008 to the secretary of state for lying on a campaign finance disclosure report and making improper expenditures of public campaign money.
His father, former PRC member Jerome Block Sr., also was indicted for election law violations for helping his son during the campaign but those charges will be dismissed because of the son’s guilty pleas.
King’s office also has been investigating Block this year for misusing a government credit card.
Block made numerous transactions on the same day at gasoline stations, with the expenses totaling about $7,000 for the first six months of the year, according to PRC records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Some of Block’s purchases of fuel also exceeded the tank capacity of his state vehicle, according to a report by an investigator for the attorney general. Block also obtained a Social Security number from another PRC employee and used it to make gasoline purchases. The PRC-issued fuel cards require the user to enter the last six digits of a Social Security number.
Block has said that he’s battling an addiction to prescription drugs. The plea deal requires Block to complete a drug court program providing treatment, random drug testing and supervision.
If Block successfully completes the program and the terms of his plea agreement, he’s eligible for a “conditional dismissal” of his charges. That would leave Block with no felony convictions, but a public record of the charges against him and the court proceedings would remain. That means someone doing a background check can see that charges were filed and later dismissed.