February 28, 2019

House bill seeks transparency for ethics probes

Laura Paskus

If New Mexico’s proposed ethics commission decides to pursue misconduct allegations by a public official or a lobbyist, the public would have a right to know about it under a bill approved Wednesday by a legislative committee.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted to enshrine transparency provisions in the rules for a new panel that would serve as the state’s government ethics watchdog.

Three out of four voters in last year’s election backed a constitutional amendment creating a statewide ethics commission. And House Bill 4 would officially establish the agency, outlining how it would operate and the powers it would wield.

But the public’s right to know about the commission’s work has been one big question looming over the debate as the bill has moved through the state House of Representatives.

Some major backers of the ethics commission have raised concerns that allegations of wrongdoing could be kept secret, leaving the public with little insight into what cases are investigated and why. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have worried that a public process would be turned into a platform for political attacks.

Rep. Daymon Ely, a Democrat from Corrales sponsoring the bill, said he intended for cases to become public after the commission’s general counsel determined there was probable cause to pursue a case. But the bill did not say that. Instead, the bill expressly said complaints would be made public except when the commission determines there has been a violation or reached a settlement. The bill also allowed the person who filed a complaint or a person accused of wrongdoing to make the case public.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted Wednesday to add a few lines to the law specifying that a case would become public when the commission’s general counsel determines there is probable cause to pursue a case.

“Everything after the probable cause finding becomes public,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, a Democrat from Corrales who is sponsoring the bill.

Under Ely’s proposal, anyone could file a verified complaint or the commission’s members could elect to open an investigation on their own.

They would have primary jurisdiction over several ethics laws dealing with lobbying, campaign finance reporting rules, financial disclosures and gifts. But initially, the commission would only cover state officials, lobbyists and candidates, not local governments such as county governments or school boards.

The legislation goes next to a vote of the full House. If passed, the bill would go to the state Senate.

But the Senate has its own bill, sponsored by Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, which would require higher standards of evidence in ethics commission cases and impose strict confidentiality rules.

In a statement on Wednesday, Lopez suggested that such measures are needed.

“We must accept the fact that the State Ethics Commission will likely face efforts by those attempting to subvert the intent of the commission with the goal of damaging an individual’s reputation,” she said. “As such, I will be working to ensure that the delicate balance between the public’s absolute need and right to know what their government is doing, and the protection of an innocent person’s reputation from politically motivated complaints, is maintained.”

But groups including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government have criticized her bill’s secrecy provisions.

The public can currently file complaints about violations of certain ethics laws with the Secretary of State’s Office. And under current law, those files are completely public.

The Rules Committee is scheduled to hold its first hearing on Senate Bill 619 Saturday.