September 2, 2016

Ethics complaints get attention as elections near

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

During the legislative session earlier this year, something very typical happened: an attempt to create an independent ethics commission failed to pass the Senate.

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse, via Wikicommons.

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse, via Wikicommons.

NM Political Report wrote about the history of this happening over the last decade.

This year’s version was pushed by Rep. Jim Dines, an Albuquerque Republican. Dines’ legislation would have put the question to voters to decide if such a commission should be created under the state constitution.

One issue that received pushback was how the ethics commission in Dines’ proposal would have published all of the ethics complaints, even those deemed frivolous, after a review by the commission.

Legislators said this process could be abused by political enemies.

From our story in February:

“It’s something that I felt today, it’s too important to give up principles that I had hoped for, pertaining to transparency,” Dines said. “Because I have seen how it can impact in a positive way, how our government works, and I just can’t give up those principles.”

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said there was “almost a paranoia” among legislators that an ethics commission would be used to “damage someone with false accusations.”

“Those complaints can still be filed,” Dines said afterward, of current law. “There can still be that abuse. That’s there already.”

And from another story, earlier in the session.

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.

Ethics complaints are, indeed, still being filed in election races. And the politicians getting targeted in the complaints  are arguing they are being filed for purely political purposes.

Complaints against candidates

The Democratic Party of New Mexico filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, another Albuquerque Republican, over her failure to disclose that her husband owned part of a company that leased a building to the Human Services Department.

All legislators must disclose any such arrangements by themselves and spouses.

Maestas Barnes called it a “smear campaign.”

Two weeks before DPNM filed the complaint, Maestas Barnes amended her financial report to disclose her husband’s government lease.

KRQE first reported on the complaint against Maestas Barnes, and soon the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe New Mexican picked up the story. .

NM Political Report also frequently reports on ethics complaints against lawmakers and political candidates.

Another recent complaint against Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said he failed to report a conflict of interest between himself and his brother, an architect who worked on a charter school that received state capital outlay funds. Pacheco requested the capital outlay funds in question.

Pacheco soon called the ethics complaint, filed by ProgressNow New Mexico*, a “smear campaign against me.”

Both candidates for Secretary of State have each faced ethics complaints this summer as well. Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, filed an ethics complaint against Democratic candidate Maggie Toulouse Oliver, alleging she should have reported a contribution to a PAC not related to Toulouse Oliver’s campaign. Toulouse Oliver’s campaign spokesman called the complaint “completely baseless and politically motivated.”

A member of DPNM’s staff filed an ethics complaint against Espinoza, accusing her of not properly reporting her campaign contributions and expenditures, among other allegations. th  Secretary of State Brad Winter later cleared Toulouse Oliver and Espinoza of any wrongdoing.

The thing that stood out perhaps most about all of these ethics complaints was the very issue some legislators were concerned most about with Dines’ independent ethics commission proposal—the constant media attention.