LAS CRUCES — A retired judge accused of soliciting bribes for former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pleaded no contest Thursday to misdemeanor misconduct, apologizing for what he said were injudicious comments but maintaining he was the innocent victim of a political witch hunt.

Former state district Judge Michael Murphy entered the plea under a deal with prosecutors that dismissed four felony charges and ended a high-profile case that shocked the judiciary two years ago, when GOP prosecutors alleged the bribes were part of a long-running practice for picking judges in Southern New Mexico.

Under the plea bargain, Murphy was given a 364-day suspended jail sentence, ordered to do 200 hours of community service and barred from ever again holding public office or entering the state District Court building in Las Cruces.

Murphy’s indictment followed one of a string of investigations into alleged pay-to-play activities with ties to Richardson, a Democrat, over the past five years.

It was the only case that resulted in criminal charges. Richardson has called the allegations “outrageous and defamatory.”

Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler said he believes he could have won a conviction on the felony charges, but that he agreed to let Murphy plea to the lesser charge because he believes that given Murphy’s age and health issues, it was unlikely he would have faced a stiffer sentence. Additionally, he said, with a plea agreement, Murphy is unable to appeal the conviction.,d.aWM&cad=rja

Now they only need to get Richardson as well.