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House gives OK to ethics commission

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The state House version of a bill to institute a voter-mandated ethics commission won bipartisan approval by a decisive margin Sunday evening.

House Bill 4 now heads to the Senate, where a competing proposal outlining the powers and procedures for the seven-member independent commission is under consideration. Both measures come after New Mexicans in November voted overwhelmingly in support of an amendment that would set up a state ethics commissions charged with investigating complaints of wrongdoing against state employees, elected officials, legislators and lobbyists.

“My hope is that if this bill becomes law, we have balanced two things: the public’s right to expect that we’re going to be held accountable for our actions,” Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales said. “But also, and equally important, due process for those people accused of wrongful conduct.”

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico said the bill incorporates “the best principles of what would make an effective ethics commission.”

“The whole goal of this commission is to rebuild public trust that has been so deeply eroded over time and high-profile, scandalous cases where our elected officials have gone to jail,” Ferguson said.

As approved, complaints would be made public when commission officials find that probable cause exists to start an investigation. Complaints that are found by the commission to be frivolous or unsubstantiated could be made public by the complainant or respondent, which, Ely said, was a “check on the commission.”

The proposal would also gives the commission subpoena power, which Ferguson said would allow it to “operate efficiently and expediently.” And it would have the ability to issue advisory opinions to help officials avoid accidental violations.

“Many times, mistakes don’t even have to happen if they could just seek some guidance and clear advice on what they can spend their money on, or what needs to be filed when,” Ferguson said.

Representatives largely spoke in support of the bill, which passed 56-11, though they shared suggestions for improving it.

Up for debate on Sunday was the proper length for a “blackout period” before an election during which the commission would not adjudicate a complaint filed against a candidate except pursuant to the Campaign Reporting Act or Voter Action Act.

As approved by the House on Sunday, that period is 60 days before an election. But Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, suggested expanding the “blackout period” so that it would begin 60 days before the start of early voting.

Montoya said the purpose was to ensure that people would not file complaints solely to “undermine a candidate’s ability to run without distraction.” His amendment was tabled.

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