February 11, 2016

Pension forfeiture for corrupt officials passes committee

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

A House committee passed a bill Thursday that would strip public officials of their pensions if they are convicted of some public corruption offenses.

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, was originally aimed at taking all retirement funds from officials who violate public trust by breaking campaign finance or corruption laws.

House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said some committee members were concerned that the original bill would unfairly take money put into the pension from a previous stint in public service. Rehm introduced a committee substitute to address the issue.

“In the original version once the violation occurs it would go back and erase other retirement,” Rehm said.

Cook did not object to the substitute, but added that he preferred his original version. When describing the proposal, he called it, “Pretty simple,” and “Pretty straight forward.”

Under both versions of the bill, any personal contributions to the pension fund would be refunded to the convicted official.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, was the only member to vote against the measure. She said he was concerned the convicted officials would be punished twice under the bill.

“I just feel like we’re just double whammying something we don’t know how to deal with,” Roybal Caballero said.

Some questions were raised regarding officials who hold two positions at once and how their pensions might be affected.

Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro, asked, “What about mayors that serve as lawmakers?”

The consensus from the committee was that if a public official holds two positions when convicted of a crime, both funds would be susceptible to forfeiture.

Currently, Andy Nunez, R-Hatch, is the only legislator who is also a mayor. Former Rep. Jose Campos was the mayor of Santa Rosa while serving in the Legislature. Campos still serves as mayor of Santa Rosa, though he left the Legislature in 2010.

The topic of pensions and public corruption is still fresh on the minds of some after former Secretary of State Dianna Duran was convicted of illegally using campaign funds.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who was represented in Thursday’s meeting with two staffers serving as experts, previously cited weak laws as the reason he did not go after Duran’s pension.

Cook’s bill heads to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will likely receive a thorough analysis.