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Editorial: State ethics commission must do its work in public

New Mexico voters helped the state take an important first step last month toward reducing/punishing government corruption when they approved a constitutional amendment creating an independent state ethics commission. New Mexico is one of just six states that doesn’t have one, and it’s a good-government reform a long time coming – our last Tax and Revenue secretary just pleaded not guilty to state charges of embezzling money from an ex-client and abusing her Cabinet post; our last secretary of state pleaded guilty to state felonies and misdemeanors after embezzling campaign donations to feed a gambling habit; a longtime state senator recently got a year tacked onto his 18-month state sentence for fraud, bribery and other charges; a former state treasurer did federal time for racketeering; his predecessor did federal time for attempted extortion; and a former state Senate leader went to federal prison for his role in a construction kickback scandal.

And those are just the high – make that low – lights.

So this first step is an important one: it created a seven-member panel to function as a clearinghouse of sorts for complaints involving state officials, legislative employees, lobbyists and government contractors.

But sometimes the second step is the hardest.

A working group headed by Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez and Republican Rep. Jim Dines, both of Albuquerque, has been exploring ways to set up the commission. They expect competing proposals to come up in the legislative session, which starts Jan. 15. A major issue will be how much of the ethics commission business should be shrouded in secrecy, and this is where the wheels have come off this cart before.

Once again Dines, who is locked in a recount and may not return to the Roundhouse in January, is pushing to make the commission’s work as public as possible. He’s right. Transparency will help build public confidence in the ethics system. Considering the criminal behavior mentioned, it is crucial the system operates in sunlight to be accountable and trusted.

But several lawmakers fear frivolous complaints will be filed as political weapons – and that making them public immediately could damage an innocent public official’s reputation. Dines has a reasonable fix: Make a person’s formal response to allegations and the original ethics complaints public at the same time so the public gets the whole story at once.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, brings up the false parallel of professional complaints filed against N.M. lawyers and judges, which are only made public in certain circumstances. But the state bar is a highly regulated professional operation that deals with lawyer-client disputes, and Judicial Standards would benefit from more transparency; the ethics commission deals with public policy questions with the primary goal of ensuring public confidence in government. Wirth’s argument is merely the latest attempt to make an ethics commission “a toothless tiger.”

Several high-ranking New Mexicans are weighing in on the side of transparency. Former U.S. Sen. and N.M. Attorney General Jeff Bingaman and former Gov. Garrey Carruthers encourage the public to keep an eye on the process to ensure the commission operates transparently. New Mexico Ethics Watch, chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson, says any commission’s operations should be transparent, especially how it handles complaints.

Advocacy group Common Cause New Mexico has been pushing for an ethics commission for 40 years and should be commended for helping get it to, and approved by, voters. Now it is essential Common Cause – as well as Ethics Watch, New Mexico First, the Foundation for Open Government and the League of Women Voters – stay involved to ensure lawmakers build a strong, open ethics commission with teeth to fully investigate complaints and help ensure honest government.

There’s much else to be determined in the enabling legislation – what discipline will be imposed, whether jurisdiction extends to school board members and how to fund the work.

But if the commission does not operate in public, then it’s likely much worse than having no ethics commission at all.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.