March 8, 2019

Ethics commission subpoena power becomes sticking point

Joe Gratz


In politics, misdeeds do not often play out in words or sweeping actions but are instead buried in papers and spreadsheets.

So, a constitutional amendment that New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved last year to set up a statewide ethics commission allowed the proposed panel to collect documents, gather testimony and get other evidence during investigations by issuing subpoenas.

But as lawmakers debate how exactly this commission should operate, many disagree over whether the panel should have the power to issue subpoenas on its own or if it should have to get the approval of a state court.

The debate over subpoena power has emerged as a central point of contention and goes to show how many details of the commission’s structure and power were left for legislators to decide.

The constitutional amendment “authorizes the commission to require the attendance of witnesses or the production of records or other relevant evidence by subpoena, as provided by law.”

And it’s that last part — “as provided by law” — that is the sticking point.

House Bill 4, which the House of Representatives passed last week and is set to get a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee on Saturday, would grant the commission power to issue subpoenas on its own.

But Senate Bill 619, which got its first hearing on Friday, would allow the commission to apply for subpoenas through a state court.

Judy Williams, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, told the Senate Rules Committee that the bill “guts subpoena power” and argued such power was part of the constitutional amendment New Mexicans voted on last year.

The think tank New Mexico First has said the power to issues subpoenas is among the principles of an effective ethics commission.

But during a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee on Friday, some lawmakers questioned what limits and oversight would be put in place.

“Is there any potential for a rogue commission to go Ken Starr on a public official?” Asked Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.

Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque and the sponsor of SB 619, signaled she would make changes to the legislation before the committee votes on it.

“What we have in front of us is not the final product,” she said.

The committee is not expected to vote on either bill Saturday, however, and the legislative session is nearing its conclusion next weekend, setting up a potential crunch for lawmakers to approve at least some sort of bill setting up the commission.