February 2, 2016

Despite concerns, ethics commission heads to House floor

A measure to give New Mexico an independent ethics commission passed its second test unanimously Tuesday afternoon, but not without long debate.

Roundhouse RotundaThe bill, carried by Rep Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, establishes a body of nine people charged with weighing ethics complaints submitted to them against state government officials, employees and government contractors.

Dines, a retired lawyer who in his second year as a legislator, said he supported such a commission long before he became a lawmaker. But he added that his short experience in the Roundhouse also helped shape his bill.

“What I’ve learned is, I really think we need this for ourselves,” Dines told committee. “And we need it for the executive branch.”

Though lawmakers have previously introduced similar ethics commission bills several times that never made it into law, this year is different. For one, New Mexico is coming off of a year of scandal in 2015 that saw the resignations of both Secretary of State Dianna Duran and state Senator Phil Griego.

Dines’ bill also has the support of Common Cause, a good government advocacy group that has pushed for an ethics commission but has opposed previous bills establishing one. Common Cause’s previous opposition stemmed around problems with secrecy in previous proposals. A current bill by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, offers similar proposals while also making all the commission’s meetings about complaints confidential. Common Cause is not supporting Lopez’s bill.

Dines’ bill keeps names of complainants confidential until the person whom is being complained about gives an official response or the deadline to give the response is reached. The commission’s meetings would also be open to the public under his bill.

Amy Bailey, general counsel for the Secretary of State, warned lawmakers that her office opposes how the bill takes money from her budget to the proposed commission. Bailey, who worked under Duran, noted that her office wasn’t taking a formal position supporting or opposing Dines’ bill.

The Secretary of State’s office is charged with enforcing the campaign finance code.

“Diverting our funds would tremendously affect our work on ethics complaints,” Bailey said.

Though every committee member voted to advance the measure, many raised concerns. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he was confused by language in the bill that the ethics commission would “adjudicate” complaints.

“Are you trying to create a judicial body by creating an ethics commission?” Egolf asked Dines, noting that other entities like the state attorney general’s office can prosecute against illegal government corruption.

Egolf carried bills to establish ethics commissions in previous legislative sessions and has one this session as well.

Dines responded that the purpose of the commission would be to make findings and conclusions about “whether a violation happened on the civil side.”

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said she had concern the bill was “not ready for prime time yet.” She said the commission could be used as “political napalm” by people with political agendas and that she didn’t see enough provisions granting due process against those complained against.

Brown mentioned that the state has tools in place to tackle some of these issues.

“We do have a legislative ethics committee,” Brown said. “I sit on that committee. It surprises me that that committee hasn’t been convened.”

Dines noted that his bill offers the people being complained against a formal process to respond to the allegations against them. In current circumstances, that person usually makes a public relations statement to the press defending themselves, Dines said.

Under his bill, the response to the allegation would be a document signed by the person posted on a website “rather than giving out a PR release,” Dines said.

“This is not a PR release,” he said.

Before voting in favor, Brown said she would probably support the bill “with the hope that the time this gets to the House floor” the bill will be “fixed.”

The bill, which previously passed the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, next heads to the House floor.

While Egolf and Lopez have introduced proposals, they have not received messages from Gov. Susana Martinez, so they have not been discussed. Since Dines’ proposal is a constitutional amendment, it does not require a message from Martinez.