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Ethics commission measure unveiled

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of a statewide ethics commission last year, lawmakers are starting to get to work on setting it up.

A bill introduced Monday would give the seven-member commission subpoena power – so that it could obtain evidence and compel witnesses to testify – and the ability to hand over complaints to other state agencies.

However, ethics complaints would not immediately be made public, and the commission’s decisions would only be released for complaints found to be non-frivolous.

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, the legislation’s sponsor, said too much public disclosure could make would-be complainants think twice about coming forward.

“I’m trying to set up a process that really works,” Ely told the Journal. “I want to encourage people to file ethics complaints.”

But that provision to limit transparency could face opposition, as some groups have called for all complaints to be publicly available.

“I’m a little concerned about the transparency part right now,” said Kathleen Sabo, executive director of the nonprofit Ethics Watch New Mexico. “It seems really convoluted.”

However, she also said the legislation was a good starting point and could be fine-tuned in the coming weeks.

Under House Bill 4, the measure filed Monday, the ethics commission would have the authority to investigate compliance with certain state laws, including those covering campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials.

The commission could act on a complaint or choose to forward part or all of the complaint to another agency.

It also would issue advisory opinions, create an ethics compliance guide and offer annual ethics training for state officials, government contractors, lobbyists and more.

Amendment

New Mexico was one of eight states without an ethics commission of some type when lawmakers, after years of debate on the issue, approved a 2017 constitutional amendment to set up such a body to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

The proposed amendment was then approved by statewide voters in November, with more than 75 percent of those who cast ballots voting in favor.

The 49-page bill filed Monday is the only ethics commission proposal filed during the ongoing 60-day session, though other measures could emerge before lawmakers adjourn March 16.

Heather Ferguson, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that pushed for years for the creation of an independent ethics commission, said the legislation would fulfill a “promise” to state voters after last year’s election results.

“I think the entire process of putting this together is to have a commission with integrity that can really work to restore public trust,” Ferguson said.

She also said the bill includes an important provision that would allow ethics commission members to launch an investigation even without receiving a written complaint.

In its current form, the legislation also includes a $1 million appropriation to get the ethics commission off the ground and hire an executive director, who would have to be an attorney or former state judge.

The seven members of the commission would receive per diem payments – intended to cover the cost of food and lodging – but would not get a salary.

Meanwhile, the commission could include no more than three members of any one political party. That means at least one member would have to be an independent, a Libertarian or a member of a minor party.

State workers, elected officials, candidates, government contractors and lobbyists would be among those barred from serving on the ethics commission.

Scandals

New Mexico’s current system for investigating ethics complaints involving legislators and other elected officials has come under fire for being secretive and fragmented.

The Legislature has historically investigated its own members, and disciplinary action has been rare.

But a string of public corruption scandals involving elected officials – including former Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego and former GOP Secretary of State Dianna Duran – fueled the push for the creation of an independent ethics commission that could serve as a clearinghouse for allegations of wrongdoing.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office last month, has supported the idea, but a spokeswoman stopped short Monday of endorsing the just-filed legislation.

“The governor proudly supported the constitutional amendment to create the ethics commission and is closely following the legislation as it makes its way through the Legislature,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Nora Sackett said.

Under the bill, the ethics commission would begin operating in January 2020, though an executive director could be hired before then.

In an attempt to reduce politically motivated allegations, a “blackout” period would bar the commission from investigating most types of complaints lodged against candidates less than 45 days before a primary or general election.

Supporters of the measures said changes could be made to it in the days ahead, but said they’re hopeful about getting a bill to the governor’s desk this year.

“My belief is we can’t go another year without it,” Ely said.

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