New state watchdog ready to investigate ethics complaints - Albuquerque Journal

New state watchdog ready to investigate ethics complaints

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Decades in the making, New Mexico’s new Ethics Commission is now ready to accept and investigate complaints.

The agency has appointed two hearing officers, established a website and may issue its first advisory opinion next month.

It’s the result of a 40-year push to establish an independent watchdog with jurisdiction over allegations against legislators, candidates, lobbyists and others.

Supporters say the agency will play a critical role in advising public officials and ruling on allegations of ethical misconduct.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment establishing the State Ethics Commission in 2018, after several ethics scandals, including the corruption conviction of a former state senator.

“Hopefully, this will help to rebuild and restore public trust,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

State law authorized the commission to begin accepting ethics complaints Wednesday, but none had been filed as of Friday afternoon.

The seven-member commission – a bipartisan group led by retired Judge William Lang – expects to meet every other month, although the schedule may change depending on the volume of complaints and other work.

The group appointed Jeremy Farris, former chief legal counsel at the state Department of Finance and Administration, as executive director in September.

The agency has also hired Walker Boyd, who previously worked at an Albuquerque law firm, as its first general counsel and reached agreements with two respected legal experts to serve as hearing officers – retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward L. Chávez and retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan C. Torgerson.

“I have been very impressed with the diligence of the commission and of the staff,” Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said Friday. “I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”

Farris, the executive director, said the agency will ask lawmakers this year for a little extra money to help establish operations. This year’s budget had about $500,000 for the commission, but the agency is seeking a supplemental appropriation of $385,000 to $400,000.

For the following year, the agency is requesting a little over $1.1 million.

It took decades of debate for legislators to agree on an ethics commission. A breakthrough came in 2017, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers reached agreement on a proposed constitutional amendment on the last night of the session.

It won support from more than 75% of voters in the 2018 general election.

But many of the details were left to lawmakers, who passed legislation last year outlining the details of how the State Ethics Commission will work. In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure into law.

New Mexico had been one of just six states without an independent ethics commission. Common Cause had been pushing for one since the 1970s.

The commission began meeting last year, but its jurisdiction over complaints started on New Year’s Day.

“The constitutional amendment and the enabling statute commit the state to more ethical government, and the commission is building an agency that can deliver on that promise,” Farris said Friday.

The agency accepts only signed complaints. It can also initiate its own complaints – with approval from five commissioners – and accept referrals from other agencies.

The commission has jurisdiction over New Mexico laws on campaign reporting, financial disclosure, lobbying, governmental conduct and other rules.

Allegations of criminal conduct are referred to law enforcement.

The commission has office and meeting space in Albuquerque, although it has held meetings in other parts of the state, too.

In addition to Lang, the chairman, the other Ethics Commission members are attorney Stuart Bluestone; former Gov. Garrey Carruthers; Judy Villanueva, a former college administrator; Frances Williams, a former White Sands Missile Range official; attorney Jeffrey Baker; and business owner Ron Solimon.

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