SANTA FE – Limited safeguards against self-enrichment in the nation’s only unsalaried legislature are under scrutiny after a corruption trial and felony convictions against a former New Mexico state senator.
Accused of using his position to profit from the sale of a state-owned building, former Sen. Phil Griego is awaiting sentencing after a jury found him guilty of fraud, felony ethical violations and other charges.
The case is a central exhibit in the campaign for a 2018 ballot initiative. New Mexico voters will consider whether to create an independent ethics commission that could shift the review of complaints against lawmakers from closed-door committees to a more public forum.
New Mexico reimburses lawmakers for some expenses but provides no salary – a citizen legislature that brings together active or retired teachers, engineers, lawyers, ranchers and others for alternating 30- and 60-day sessions once each year.
Former senator and political consultant Dede Feldman said the arrangement, enshrined in the state Constitution, was meant to bring expertise from all walks of life to the Capitol.
New Mexico law also prohibits using the powers and resources of public office for personal gain. It requires recusals from voting on certain proposals.
“That is very rarely done in the New Mexico Legislature,” Feldman said.
Republican Rep. James Strickler of Farmington earns his living from oil and natural gas production through his company, JMJ Lands and Minerals.
He introduced legislation in 2016 that would reduce tax rates for so-called stripper wells, which produce a minimal amount of oil or gas, to encourage companies to keep operating them. Stickler acknowledged that he owns an interest in some stripper wells in New Mexico, but he said it is in the public’s interest to save wells from premature abandonment.
“You want to keep those wells flowing so they generate tax revenues, royalties and jobs,” Strickler said.
The Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers around the country reported outside income or employment in 2015. While that might give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those income sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
Democratic Sen. Cisco McSorley of Albuquerque sponsored unsuccessful legislation last year to expand the state’s medical cannabis program to cover more ailments, drawing on his past experience advising cannabis patients and producers as an attorney.
McSorley said the amateur status of lawmakers has turned into an outdated liability that’s exploited by high-paid lobbyists, and he blames them for undermining stricter ethics provisions.
“The general public thinks they’re getting a good deal by not paying legislators,” said McSorley, who has served as a lawmaker since 1984. “It’s a recipe for disaster. … I euphemistically tell people – as sad as it is – that we don’t have conflicts of interest, we have areas of expertise.”
The state’s rules about recusals from voting are open to broad interpretation. Members of the House are required to vote on all legislation if present unless excused by a majority vote of those present. Senate rules say present members shall vote – unless they have a direct personal or financial interest.
Testimony at Griego’s trial indicated that lawmakers routinely skip votes without explanation, a practice known as “taking a walk,” which leaves constituents none the wiser about financial conflicts.
The trial explored other legislative maneuvers that can obscure personal financial interests. Griego had colleagues anonymously introduce a bill authorizing the sale of a state-owned building and watched them present misleading information to promote the legislation.
He never reported earning a $50,000 commission as a real estate agent as required on annual financial disclosure forms, but he was acquitted of violating the state’s Financial Disclosure Act.
At the same time, new tools allow the public to watch over lawmakers, including archived webcasts of committee meetings and floor sessions.
Annual disclosure filings were also made available online this year. They detail income sources over $5,000, and consulting or financial transactions with state government agencies.
However, responses are frequently vague and virtually useless in identifying financial interests that might intersect with legislating, according to a review by New Mexico Ethics Watch.
Opinions among lawmakers are divided about the need for greater oversight.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe attorney, said an ethics commission can instill new public confidence. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell says there’s no need.
“There hasn’t been any proof brought up that the system we have now isn’t handling unethical conduct,” said Pirtle, a partner in a farming business that includes dairy operations.
This year, he sponsored legislation to outlaw use of the word “milk” in the sale of soy, almond and coconut drinks and to restrict food stamp purchases to food such as vegetables, eggs and fruit and not soda or candy. Neither bill passed.
Pirtle said the measures would not specifically benefit the family’s agri-business, Pirtle Farms, where milk goes into cheese production. He said the bills were directed at helping his rural constituents and improving child nutrition.