February 23, 2019

Birth pains accompany creation of ethics commission

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The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Lawmakers and open government proponents on Friday raised questions about transparency and possible conflicts with other investigative agencies as New Mexico legislators try to flesh out details of the long-discussed creation of a state ethics commission.

House Bill 4 would create an independent state agency overseen by seven commissioners with power to investigate and enforce compliance with laws on governmental conduct, election campaigns, lobbyists, gifts and financial disclosures by state officers, employees and contractors, among others.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Saturday. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who introduced the bill, presented it to the committee Friday but asked the members to give him another day to work on changes before voting on it.

Ely said the bill’s goal is to “make sure we go after the bad people in this system and shine a light on these people.”

But legislators wanted to know whether the commission’s work would overlap or conflict with other investigative agencies, such as the Secretary of State’s Office or Attorney General’s Office.

Ely said that could happen. “I do recognize that there will be problems,” he said. But since lawmakers have talked about initiating an ethics commission for years without acting on it, he said “we’ve got to get going on this or we’re gonna be doing the same dance in 10 years.”

Meanwhile, representatives from organizations favoring more access to public records said the bill does not go far enough toward letting the public know what is going on once a complaint is filed with the commission.

As it stands now, both the complainant and the government official being investigated would have the right to inform the public about the process, but the commission itself would not have to release any records related to the complaint.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said that’s a problem. “The commission should report what is happening,” she said following Friday’s hearing. “The public should have the right to know what it is doing.” She said her group is currently “neutral” on the bill.

Pamela Blackwell of New Mexico First told the commissioners her group cannot support the bill as it is, particularly since the legislation lacks clarity when it comes to defining which complaints against government officials would fall under the ethic commission’s purview and which would be handled by the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, campaign finance reporting and lobbyist disclosures.

Ely said the commission would create a memorandum of understanding with the Secretary of State’s Office to delineate those duties.

He said the commission would not have the power to remove or censure anyone it investigates.

The bill also calls for a 60-day “blackout” period prior to an election. Ely said while the commission could continue to investigate an official running for office during that time, it would not reveal any information about that person during the 60-day period leading up to the election. That way, he said, the commission cannot be used for “nefarious” purposes to influence election outcomes.

Several lawmakers on the committee, including Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, praised Ely for his work on the bill and said it’s long overdue.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the committee, agreed, saying “the public has spoken.”

In the wake of various scandals involving state officials, voters in November overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment authorizing creation of an ethics commission.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause, who spoke in favor of the bill, said that’s because “voters really want to restore their faith in the political process in our state government.”

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Saturday in the House chamber at the Capitol.