By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Advocates for transparency in government ethics complaints celebrated a win Wednesday when a state House committee voted in favor of a bill removing a secrecy rule for people who make accusations of misconduct against lawmakers.
Members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 6-1 to advance House Bill 169, which would allow complainants to speak publicly about an investigation by the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee. The measure is now headed to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Under current law, a legislator facing a complaint is permitted to disclose information about the allegations of unethical behavior, such as harassment, while the accuser is not. Supporters of HB 169 called the provisions unfair.
“If one side can go ahead and speak and the other can’t, that’s not a fairness system,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a member of the Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee who voted to advance HB 169.
Only Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, voted against the bill. He said he’d prefer if neither party involved in a complaint could speak about ongoing investigations.
“If nobody could say anything, maybe we’d have a fair trial,” Zamora said. Too often, he added, the accused is “deemed guilty before you go to trial — deemed guilty by the public.”
The State Ethics Commission, an independent state agency that enforces a broader range of government conduct laws but does not consider harassment claims, allows both accusers and accused to speak publicly about complaints. However, it prohibits commissioners, their employees and staff members from disclosing information about investigations unless the commission finds probable cause to hold a public hearing.
Jeremy Farris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, wrote in an email Wednesday his commission “hasn’t taken a position on this bill.”
Supporters of HB 169 lauded it as one step toward openness.
“It’s a small victory, but all small victories we celebrate,” said Lan Sena, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy.
Sena was one of several advocates who told committee members the confidentiality clause prevents complainants from even telling their partners, parents, friends or other loved ones about harassment they might have experienced.
The provision also could stop complainants from reaching out for professional support from counselors or therapists, said Rep. Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Removing the gag order would give accusers “an opportunity to access the support they might need” as an investigation of their harassment claim plays out, she added.
Calls to reform the Legislature’s harassment policies and investigations into complaints have continued following accusations by lobbyist Marianna Anaya and others against Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.
Anaya alleged last year Ivey-Soto had groped her and displayed other inappropriate behavior. Ivey-Soto denied any wrongdoing as the ethics committee conducted an investigation.
In September, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the investigation ended with no resolution, but several lawmakers have since indicated the ethics committee’s procedures stalled after a 2-2 vote on whether to move forward with a hearing on Ivey-Soto.
Anaya testified Wednesday in support of HB 169.
The Legislative Council, a panel of lawmakers that oversees the inner workings of the Legislature, approved a policy in December that would add a fifth, tie-breaking member to the four-member interim ethics committee if an ethics hearing is scheduled.
The fifth member would be an outside attorney with a background in harassment cases.