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New Mexico ethics panel taking shape with 2 appointments

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s fledgling State Ethics Commission is taking shape with the appointment of two commissioners — a Santa Fe attorney and a former military official who both have lengthy experience in oversight of conduct in government.

Newly appointed ethics commissioner Stuart Bluestone said Tuesday that he wants education and training to be at the core of the commission’s work toward enforcing regulations for campaign finances, public contracts, lobbying, gifts to public officials and more.

His work on government conduct issues includes a stint on an ethics reform task force convened by former Gov. Bill Richardson.

“I hope that the commission doesn’t have a gotcha mentality,” said Bluestone, who was appointed by Democratic state House Speaker Brian Egolf. “You’ve got to be fair and balanced and help educate people.”

When the ethics commission convenes, the public will have a new option for complaints against state lawmakers, Bluestone said — though the state House retains authority over impeachments.

Voters approved the creation of the commission by statewide ballot last year to oversee conduct by public officials, political candidates, lobbyists and government contractors amid a string of political corruption scandals.

Detailed provisions for the seven-seat body were signed into law last month that outline investigatory powers and public disclosure. Subpoenas must be approved by an assigned judge. The commission opens its doors at the start of 2020.

Frances Williams also has been appointed with an eye toward her past experience as an equal opportunity manager at White Sands Missile Range. Her selection came from Democratic Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces.

Two appointments are pending from Republican legislative leaders, and one from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The five appointees select two more members. A political party can’t control more than three seats.

Recent criminal prosecutions have resulted in jail time for former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran, for using campaign funds to fuel a gambling habit, and former Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego, for using his legislative position to profit from the sale of a state-owned building. Criminal probes of government affairs will continue to fall to local and state prosecutors, not the State Ethics Commission.

At 72, Bluestone has worked for five Democratic attorneys general in a variety of roles, starting with Paul Bardacke in the 1980s and concluding in 2016 with current Attorney General Hector Balderas.

He expressed cautious optimism in the commission’s mission.

“I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that an ethics commission is a panacea or that ethics in New Mexico is worse than in other states,” Bluestone said.

Bluestone once worked for the Legislative Counsel Service that provides legal services to state lawmakers, where he witnessed 1992 House impeachment proceedings that ended with the censure of state Rep. Ron Olguin — later convicted of soliciting a bribe to influence legislation.