Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The State Investment Council has decided to bar New Mexico’s land commissioner and state treasurer from participating in closed-door meetings – and some votes – because they haven’t signed paperwork acknowledging they’ve read the council’s ethics code.
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, in turn, contends the SIC is really just trying to muzzle him and other members by imposing new confidentiality rules outlined in the code.
The dispute surfaced in a public meeting Tuesday when the State Investment Council – led by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez – voted 7-2 in favor of imposing sanctions on four members who haven’t signed the new Code of Conduct: Dunn, a Republican; Democratic State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg; and two former lawmakers appointed by the Legislature to serve on the council.
Martinez said the ethics code is especially important, given the investment scandal under the administration of her predecessor, Bill Richardson – which the SIC says cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars through pay-to-play and politically motivated investments.
“It’s the people’s money,” Martinez said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m trying to understand what is hard about saying, ‘I was appointed in order to properly handle the funds that are in my control.’ ”
But Dunn said the sanctions are simply an attempt by the council to force him and others into a confidentiality agreement – to shield more of the group’s work from public view. The State Investment Council wants to secretly negotiate settlements when legal claims arise, he said.
“I’m highly incensed,” Dunn said in an interview.
He released a letter from a land-office attorney saying the ethics code violates the principles of open government and is contrary to state sunshine laws.
The council’s Code of Conduct prohibits members from disclosing “confidential information” they have access to through closed-door SIC meetings and privileged legal matters, unless they are required by law to disclose the information. In New Mexico, the Investment Council and other public boards are generally allowed to meet in private to discuss litigation and similar topics.
Lynn Hoffman, a venture fund adviser and member of the SIC, said that the ethics code was adopted after months of discussion and that it was time for entire council to comply with it.
Signing the form each year “is a way of reminding every one of us of our duty,” Hoffman said.
Under the sanctions adopted Tuesday, members who haven’t signed the ethics code will be barred from participating in closed-door “executive sessions” of the SIC, and they won’t be able to vote afterward on any matters discussed in those sessions.
Besides Eichenberg and Dunn, two other members of the SIC refused to sign the form: Republican Leonard Lee Rawson and Democrat Tim Jennings, both former legislators.
Rawson said that he had no objection to the content of the code but that signing the form is unnecessary.
Jennings shared Dunn’s concerns about confidentiality, arguing that the code is a pretext to keep members in the “minority” from sharing information with the public.
“People need to see what’s going on in here,” Jennings said.
Dunn said he will consider litigation.
“What the SIC is trying to do is take away our constitutional duties to serve on the council by forcing us to sign a code of ethics,” Dunn said. “I already pledged an oath to the state that covers all this.”
A spokesman for the governor, Michael Lonergan, said it was “absurd” to suggest the ethics code was intended to keep people quiet. The new code, he said, is an important step toward preventing fraud, waste and abuse.
A judge earlier this year approved a $24 million settlement involving a Chicago investment firm, which agreed to pay the SIC and New Mexico’s teacher pension fund for participating in a pay-to-play scheme to get state investment business.
Dunn and Eichenberg left Tuesday’s five-hour meeting before the sanctions came up.