According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, New Mexico is 1 of 6 states without a statewide ethics commission.
New Mexico has had more than its share of public corruption scandals over the years.
Public corruption scandals in New Mexico involving elected officials go back decades, with two state treasurers, two state senators, a secretary of state and a deputy insurance superintendent all going to prison on criminal charges.
On November 5, 2018, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly voted with a three-quarters majority for a constitutional amendment to establish an independent statewide ethics commission.
The commission as envisioned will be authorized to look at alleged misconduct by state officers as well as employees of the executive and legislative branches, plus candidates, lobbyists, government contractors and those seeking government contracts.
The new commission is to have broad powers, including the ability to subpoena witnesses.
On Sunday March 3, 2019, HB 4, the house bill creating the voter-mandated ethics commission won bipartisan approval.
It passed with a 56-11 vote margin.
It will be a seven-member commission.
HB 4 has now been forwarded to the New Mexico Senate where a competing proposal outlining the powers and procedures for independent commission is under consideration.
Democrat State Representative Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, who is also a New Mexico licensed attorney, had this to say about the passage of HB 4:
“My hope is that if this bill becomes law, we have balanced two things: the public’s right to expect that we’re going to be held accountable for our actions … But also, and equally important, due process for those people accused of wrongful conduct.”
Executive Director of Common Cause New Mexico Heather Ferguson had this to say:
“[The House Bill incorporates] the best principles of what would make an effective ethics commission. … The whole goal of this commission is to rebuild public trust that has been so deeply eroded over time and high-profile, scandalous cases where our elected officials have gone to jail.”
For 40 years, Common Cause has worked on trying to get an ethics commission created by the legislature and campaign heavily for the constitutional amendment approved by voters.
POWER OF THE ETHICS COMMISSION
Under the approved house bill, complaints would be made public when commission officials find that “probable cause” exists to start an investigation.
“Probable cause” in a criminal setting is defined as evidence initially reflecting that it is more likely than not that something wrong has occurred.
Complaints that are found by the commission to be frivolous or unsubstantiated could be made public by the complainant or respondent which supporters argue will act as a check on the commission itself.
HB 4 gives the Ethics Commission subpoena power which is absolutely necessary to empower the commission with real authority to investigate.
HB 4 also gives the commission the authority to issue “advisory opinions” to help elected and government officials to avoid “accidental” violations of the campaign finance laws.
The biggest benefit to advisory opinions is that it will aide in avoiding or preventing mistakes by providing guidance and clear advice on what can and cannot be done under campaign finance laws.
A major area of concern and debate before the house vote was taken was the proper length for a “blackout period” before an election during which the commission would not adjudicate a complaint filed against a candidate except pursuant to the Campaign Reporting Act or Voter Action Act.
The House Bill approved a black out period of 60 days before an election.
An amendment proposing expanding the “blackout period” so that it would begin 60 days before the start of early voting was tabled and therefor failed.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
A rogues gallery of unethical conduct, fraud, theft and abuse of power and influence in New Mexico politics includes Former Democrat State Senator Manny Aragon, two former Democrat State Treasurers, Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil, former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran, former Democrat State Senator Phil Griego, former Republican State Senator Monica Youngblood and most recently former Republican New Mexico Taxation, and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla.
Unproven allegations of “pay to play” plagued the 8-year tenure of Democrat Governor Bill Richardson with a federal grand jury investigation resulting in no indictments and no finding of “pay to play”.
Former Republican United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico Gregg Forate, with an obvious strong Republican partisan bias, released a scathing letter of condemnation that accused the Richardson administration of “corrupting” the government contract award process.
Forate was later appointed Secretary of Public Safety by Richardson’s Republican successor and he now serves as a Federal Magistrate appointed by President Donald Trump.
During the 8-year tenure of former Republican Governor “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”, allegations of unethical conduct and undue influence with the award of the billion-dollar, 20-year Downs Race Track Lease, dubbed the “Dirty Downs Deal”, occurred.
What also occurred was a federal grand jury investigation of the Republican Governor’s number one political consultant and campaign manager relating to misuse of her inauguration funding.
A statewide ethics commission will help rebuild trust in a state government that has experienced way too much corruption through the years, but only if it is empowered with real authority and only if actually does something.
The final version of the legislation creating the ethics commission needs to include the ability to remove or take civil action to remove officials from their positions or suspend them to some extent for unethical or improper conduct and strip them of authority for their conduct and even impose fines.
There is less than two weeks and counting until the 2019 legislative session ends, and the last two weeks is always very hectic with the passage of bills by both legislative chambers.
The New Mexico State Senate needs to act quickly and complete all the work necessary to finally create a state-wide ethics commission and send it on to the Governor for her signature.