A state senator has proposed to keep much of the New Mexico ethics commission’s work secret and potentially impose thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time on anyone who breaks its confidentiality rules. Seventy-five percent of voters in last year’s election approved the creation of a state ethics commission, and legislators are now debating exactly how it should work, including how much the public should know about the cases it handles. Legislation filed this week by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would set up the commission to ensure that ethics complaints remain secret unless it decides there has been a violation of law or the accused signs waives confidentiality. Under her Senate Bill 619, the form for filing an ethics complaint would include a confidentiality agreement. And anyone who discloses confidential complaints or investigations could face fines as high as $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
New Mexico voters spoke, overwhelmingly backing a constitutional amendment last year to create an independent ethics commission. Now, it is up to lawmakers to decide exactly how the commission will work. Democrats in the state House of Representatives on Monday put forward the first plan of the legislative session for setting up the ethics panel, proposing a board that would work with broad secrecy. Confidentiality provisions immediately raised concerns from some of the biggest proponents of creating the commission. And the bill’s backers are walking a fine line as they ask lawmakers to set up the very body that will police them.
For a window into how legislation is made, few moments were more educational than a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday afternoon in a cavernous, mostly empty room on the University of New Mexico campus. On the surface, the meeting was congenial as two state lawmakers, legislative staff, attorneys and representatives of civic organizations hammered out the beginnings of draft legislation that would fill out the details of the state’s first independent ethics commission if voters give the go ahead in November. But beneath the amicable discussions there was a rematch of sorts, perhaps noticeable only to those aware of the contentious history surrounding the idea of an independent ethics commission. For almost 15 years, lawmakers offended by the notion that they needed anyone to watch over them squared off against other legislators who touted independent oversight as a way to restore public trust in government. Legislative opposition knew no political party, with both Democrats and Republicans chafing at the idea of an independent oversight body.
Corruption has long been endemic to New Mexico government. And today, even when people ferret out potential problems or ethical lapses, there’s still a significant gap between the laws meant to protect people and the ability or willingness of state agencies to enforce them. In January, for example, conservation groups wrote to the state purchasing agent and director, asking him to look into a political donation from a company with a lucrative state contract. The company had contributed $1,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee during a time when the state’s Procurement Code prohibits political contributions, when proposals are being evaluated for the awarding of contracts. Months passed, and the activists didn’t hear back from the state purchasing agent or from the agency that had issued the contract, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC).
Katherine Duncan is the Communications Assistant at CREW and previously worked as a corporate editor. Walker Davis is a Research Associate at CREW where he researches campaign finance and lobbying issues. In case it wasn’t already clear, having accountability measures in place for elected officials is crucial. Unchecked power is a formula for corruption. Perhaps nowhere has this been more clear recently than in state-level politics in New Mexico and Mississippi, both of which lack appropriate accountability systems and both of which have faced local scrutiny and public outrage after widely reported ethical issues, including public officials using campaign funds for personal expenses.
While ethics reform was on everyone’s mind when the 2016 Legislative Session began, the increased attention didn’t mean increased success in passing ethics bills. There were some small successes. The House will archive proceedings and a bill to streamline campaign finance reporting is on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk. But the real ethics news was the crown jewel of ethics legislation—an independent ethics commission—once again failed after heading over to the Senate. And a bill to shine the light on so-called “dark money” failed on the House side.
Legislation to create an independent ethics commission passed the House on a bipartisan vote late Tuesday night. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, HJR 5 would create an independent commission to field and take action on complaints made about state officials. Since it is a proposed constitutional amendment, if both the House and the Senate pass the legislation, the issue would go to the voters in November for approval. Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, raised a number of concerns, one of which was how to fund it. “My concern is this could balloon into significant money,” Brown said.
House Democrats gathered in Santa Fe to unveil a slate of ethics and transparency bills on Tuesday. The bills come after a year that saw a state Senator resign after violating the state constitution and the Secretary of State resigned after pleading guilty to six crimes, including two felonies. One bill that they included was instituting a state ethics commission, legislation that has been introduced in one form or another for over a decade without ever passing. New Mexico is one of just eight states that do not have an ethics commission. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is the latest to attempt to bring the legislation to the governor’s desk.
In 2010 Dianna Duran ran for secretary of state as a reform candidate who would clean things up in the wake of scandals that had plagued the office’s two previous occupants. As a county clerk in rural Otero County and later a state senator, Duran had earned a reputation for cool-headed competence. She was endorsed by most of the state’s newspapers and even the left-leaning editorial board at The Santa Fe New Mexican gave her a thumbs up, citing a “solid record of integrity.” When she won, Duran became the first Republican to hold the secretary of state’s office in 80 years. That was then. In late October, just a year into her second term, Duran, the state official in charge of overseeing elections, campaign finance and ethics, resigned and pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement charges related to personal use of campaign funds.
The perennial issue of creating a state ethics commission passed a House committee on Wednesday. The legislation, sponsored by Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, sought to make the ethics commission as non-partisan and non-political as possible. The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted unanimously to pass a committee substitute version of the legislation with no recommendation. There was little debate on the legislation, though Egolf noted that members on the committee had heard this legislation before so a detailed presentation was not necessary. Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, noted that Egolf is the latest in a line of legislators to try to create an ethics commission.