February 10, 2020

The legislature: A tangled web of relationships and potential conflicts

Scott Scanland, one of the most influential lobbyists in the New Mexico Legislature, recently surveyed a Senate committee room during a hearing on a bill aimed at more stringently regulating electronic tobacco products.

Scanland represents Altria Client Services Inc., parent company of tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA and a variety of other tobacco and cigar brands. Altria also has a 35 percent ownership stake in JUUL Labs Inc., a leading e-vapor company.

The lobbyist happens to be married to state Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, the House majority whip. Some ethics watchdogs consider this a serious potential conflict of interest. But it’s only one example of many in a citizen Legislature where the potential for such conflicts is endemic, says former state Sen. Dede Feldman.

In a small state where face-to-face connections are critical and political ties almost inescapable, potential conflicts abound. It’s no surprise to learn of state legislators who are married to lobbyists, or have lobbyists within their own families, or who regularly vote or even sponsor legislation that would support an industry in which the lawmaker has a personal business interest.

“Conflict of interest is built into the New Mexico Legislature by virtue of the fact that it’s a citizens’ legislature where legislators keep their day jobs,” said Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat who served in the Legislature for 16 years.

Gallegos, who is part of the top House Democratic leadership, originally had an interview scheduled with The New Mexican to talk about the issue. But a spokesman for House Democrats instead provided a statement signed by Gallegos that read: “A simple check of my voting record will show that I have voted on behalf of my constituency and my conscience.”

Feldman and other watchdogs say such ties give rise to potential conflicts, pointing to Rep. Moe Maestas’ marriage to another influential lobbyist, Vanessa Alarid, as an example. The nonpartisan group New Mexico Ethics Watch included the Scanland-Gallegos and Maestas-Alarid marriages and a handful more in a report on lobbyists’ outsized influence on state lawmakers.

Alarid’s client list, like Scanland’s, is wide and varied, including the New Mexico Realtors Association, an e-nicotine industry group and Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund. Both e-nicotine and the gun safety group have interest in legislation advancing this session.

Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, said he votes on legislation in which his wife is involved “all the time,” but argues it is not a conflict of interest.

“It is a conflict of interest if a particular vote has an economic impact on my family,” he said. “But my wife represents her clients, I represent my constituents. And sometimes those interests are the same, sometimes those interests diverge.”

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, who works as a consultant for an oil and gas company, said the interwoven threads between personal connections, business and politics don’t present a conflict and are simply the nature of a citizens’ legislature. He notes many of New Mexico’s unsalaried legislators work as Realtors, teachers, cattle ranchers, in nonprofit groups or other fields that may be affected by legislation they pass.

There are other examples: State Sens. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, and Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, also are married to lobbyists; in Gould’s case, one who represents the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who earns his living as a lawyer, has represented the state’s largest medical cannabis company, Ultra Health, in lawsuits against the state and is a supporter of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push to legalize marijuana in the 2020 session for recreational use. Ultra Health CEO Duke Rodriguez has said the company wishes to expand into the full adult-use market.

In a recent interview, Egolf declined to say whether Ultra Health remains a client as a vote to legalize marijuana nears, citing attorney rules he says forbid him from doing so. In his financial disclosure form to the state, the only potential conflict of interest he listed is his legal representation of the Taos Valley Acequia Association.

In an interview with The New Mexican, Egolf said representing Ultra Health in the past was “absolutely not” a conflict of interest.

“The vote [that] was taken on medical cannabis resulted in no benefit, no personal benefit to me of any kind,” Egolf said. “So I truly don’t understand what the conflict of interest is.

“Should there be no lawyers in the Legislature?” Egolf added.

Egolf declined a second interview on the topic. In a prepared follow-up statement, he said: “Ethics are of paramount importance in the Legislature and for all elected officials. That is why I began fighting for a statewide independent ethics commission in my very first term in the Legislature.”

He praised the formation of a new state Ethics Commission as a “fair, independent” body and declined to comment on other lawmakers’ potential conflicts of interest.

Jeremy Farris, director of the recently created New Mexico Ethics Commission, said he could not offer an opinion on whether close family or personal ties constitute conflicts of interest because he does not want to prejudge matters the commission may look into. He said the commission will investigate issues when they receive complaints.

He added one of the commission’s major coming tasks is developing a model code of conduct for state agencies and the Legislature that may include a review of the state’s rules on conflicts of interest and situations in which a lawmaker should recuse himself or herself from a vote.

The governor said she hopes the Ethics Commission will fill a vacuum as conflicts arise.

“That’s exactly why there needs to be an Ethics Commission — so that you don’t get someone in my position opining about one legislator and one issue,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview. “You bet it needs to be completely independent. And my expectation is that they’re gonna pay complete attention to these issues and determine whether there are conflicts or not. And I feel really good about the work that they’ve done so far. 

“I’m anxious for the Ethics Commission to get as much clarity about what we can and cannot do, and then I do expect during my term as governor that some legislators in one situation or another … will be recusing themselves on any number of issues, and I think that’s the whole intent,” she continued.

Currently, it is up to lawmakers themselves to decide when they should recuse themselves from a vote.

Sen. Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal, who owns Fulfer Oil & Cattle Co. and a small newspaper in far Southeastern New Mexico, has not refrained from voting on bills affecting the oil and gas industry. The one time he recused himself from a vote is on a bill dealing with water waste from hydraulic fracturing operations because he was in the process of patenting a fracking water recycling plant at the time.

“If it’s a direct relation, I can see maybe doing that, but if it broadly affects the industry that you’re working with and you’re knowledgeable … I feel like that’s not a conflict,” Fulfer said.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who in the past introduced legislation to force lobbyists to disclose how much their clients are paying, said it’s sometimes “a fine line” between a lawmaker offering their industry expertise and crossing into territory that would give the impression of a conflict.

“Are there lots of conflicts? Yes,” Steinborn said. “Does it get even more nuanced in the sense that some people represent an industry while others may actually be working for things that most people would view in the public good, like teachers?”

Most lawmakers interviewed for this story say such industry expertise or knowledge of a certain field is valuable to other lawmakers trying to make sense of bills without paid staff to help them.

But Kathleen Sabo, former executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the Legislature needs to be far more transparent about potential conflicts.

“These are some of the issues that people who are pushing reform of the Legislature are going to have to figure out,” she said. “I think we get into dangerous territory when we start splitting hairs.”

For now, the Legislature will operate as it has, and most observers don’t see a change anytime soon.

“It is a citizen legislature,” said Paul Gessing, who operates the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative think tank. “And it’s hard to come up with a conflict-free group of people.”