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Avenue for lobbyist harassment complaints unclear

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico government agencies have limited authority to investigate harassment complaints against lobbyists or from lobbyists against other parties, despite the implementation of a new policy at the Legislature.

Lobbyists are regulated by the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees their registration and financial disclosures and can refer individuals to law enforcement when a lobbyist is out of compliance with state codes.

But the agency does not have the authority to investigate harassment or sexual misconduct complaints that involve lobbyists as either alleged perpetrators or victims, according to spokesman Joey Keefe.

“There’s not much in state law that allows anyone to do anything in those situations,” Keefe said. “Not everyone has a way to make a complaint through their employer.”

Sexual harassment is illegal under the New Mexico Human Rights Act, which defines it as a subset of sexual discrimination and often forms the basis of harassment-related civil lawsuits. But the avenue for state investigation and discipline as it relates to harassment is unclear when one of the parties is a lobbyist.

A bill that would have given the Secretary of State’s Office authority to investigate such complaints was introduced during this year’s 30-day legislative session but failed to advance.

“We’re only able to police ourselves.” said state Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s sponsors.

According to Legislative Council Service attorney Jon Boller, registered lobbyists are considered “members of the public” under the Roundhouse’s anti-harassment policy approved by top-ranking lawmakers in January. That means a lobbyist can register a complaint about a member of the Legislature, legislative staff member, or visitor to the Capitol, or be subject to an investigation if a complaint is lodged against the lobbyist. But Boller noted the policy goes only so far.

“There is limited jurisdiction, and it has to be related to a legislative activity or a visit to the Capitol,” Boller said.

An incident involving a lobbyist outside the Roundhouse, unless it was directly related to a legislative activity such as an off-site committee meeting, would most likely not be covered under the policy, Boller said.

Sexual harassment and misconduct allegations have reverberated throughout the Roundhouse in recent months amid the national #MeToo movement, as some lobbyists and legislators have described the Roundhouse as a minefield of inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, leering looks and sexual propositions.

The renewed scrutiny prompted lawmakers to revise their harassment policy for the first time since 2008, and led state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, to resign from his majority whip position over a decade-old harassment lawsuit.

Lobbyist Vanessa Alarid, who said in December that an ex-lawmaker wanted sex in exchange for voting in favor of a bill she was promoting in 2009, said Tuesday that the recent scrutiny of sexual harassment and misconduct issues could lead to greater awareness. (The ex-lawmaker has denied Alarid’s accusations.)

“All of these conversations about sexual harassment … are educating the public and letting people know the parameters for reporting,” Alarid said. “Until we change the culture, things are not going to be different, and these conversations are helping bring about that change.”

Meanwhile, Thomson said that she believes this year’s bill failed because it was filed too late in the session, and that she intends to revive it during the 2019 session.

In addition to granting the secretary of state investigative ability in complaints involving lobbyists, the measure also would have made sexual harassment training mandatory for lobbyists and given the Secretary of State’s Office disciplinary power in cases in which it confirmed misconduct. It also stipulated that the names of the individuals filing complaints would be kept confidential.

Though it lacks the authority for more binding measures, Keefe said the Secretary of State’s Office is still attempting to educate lobbyists about harassment issues. Before the most recent legislative session, the agency hosted voluntary harassment training for lobbyists, and 112 individuals attended two workshops.

There are now 563 lobbyists registered with the state this year, according to Keefe.

Editor’s note: The headline on this story has been changed to more accurately reflect the issue.

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