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Ethics commission bill passes its first hurdle

SANTA FE – A bill that would set up a voter-approved New Mexico ethics commission and outline the body’s powers and procedures passed its first legislative hurdle Saturday without opposition.

But the bill’s sponsor said he would make additional changes to it after questions surfaced about how transparent the commission would be.

Specifically, Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said his intent is for valid ethics complaints – and responses to the complaints – to be publicly available once an ethics commission official finds probable cause exists to launch an investigation.

“If that’s not clear, we’re going to make it clear,” he told the Journal.

Under the measure, House Bill 4, complaints found to be frivolous would not be investigated. Such a complaint would not be released, though either the person who filed it or the subject of the complaint could voluntarily decide to do so.

New Mexico voters last year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment – proposed by lawmakers in 2017 – to set up an ethics commission to investigate claims of wrongdoing against legislators, lobbyists, elected officials and state employees.

That vote came after years of debate on the issue and a string of high-profile public corruption cases involving elected officials.

The bill approved Saturday, one of two ethics commission measures proposed at the Roundhouse, would give the seven-member commission subpoena power – so that it could obtain evidence and compel witnesses to testify – and the ability to hand off complaints to other state agencies.

The commission would have the authority to investigate compliance with state laws covering campaign fundraising, financial disclosures, lobbyist regulations and the conduct of government officials.

But some groups have called for greater transparency in its handling of complaints.

“A key reason for voters’ overwhelming support of an ethics commission was to build trust in state government,” Melanie Majors, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said in a Saturday statement. “That trust can only exist if the commission operates in an open and transparent manner.”

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Saturday via a 8-0 vote. It now advances to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

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