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Editorial: NM needs to double down on corruption

A recent N.M. court ruling that part of the state’s anti-corruption law is too vague to be enforced mustn’t be allowed to stunt efforts at rooting out public corruption. Instead, state lawmakers need to revisit language of the law in the next regular session and double down on efforts to ensure the state can criminally prosecute those who misuse their public offices for personal benefit.

The state Court of Appeals on May 29 ordered the reinstatement of ethics charges against former Doña Ana County Treasurer David Gutierrez (accused of pursuing an unwanted sexual relationship with an employee), 6th Judicial District Attorney Francesca Estevez (accused of manipulating or intimidating officers investigating whether she had improperly used a state-owned vehicle) and former San Juan County Magistrate Judge Connie Lee Johnston (accused of illegally recording communications in secure areas of a court building). The court also dismissed a series of charges against them and former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla (accused of using her position to improperly access tax records, engaging in an official act for personal financial gain, embezzlement and computer access with intent to defraud or embezzle). Padilla also still faces charges that include engaging in an official act for personal financial gain, embezzlement and computer access with intent to defraud or embezzle.

The court ruled that prosecutors may bring charges against officials who use their powers to “obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests,” but that two other sections of the Governmental Conduct Act are too vague for criminal prosecutions. Those sections call for public officials to conduct themselves in a way that justifies the “confidence placed in them by the people” and for officials to make reasonable efforts to avoid undue influence and abuse of office.

And just how is anyone supposed to evaluate, much less enforce, that?

The court’s ruling shows that language in the anti-corruption law needs to be sharp and crystal clear so true criminal activity is charged, and those charges hold up in court. It’s a tall order – consider the Supreme Court decision last month that acknowledged abuse of power yet tossed the New Jersey “Bridgegate” convictions, as well as in prior cases including (Virginia Gov. Bob) McDonnell vs. United States that essentially made many forms of bribery effectively legal.

It does not instill public confidence when public officials are charged with a crime but then the charges are thrown out. That’s unfair to the official, who may have been “overcharged” via a murky statute, as well as the public, which deserves accountability from its officials and its legal system. The challenge of crafting fair and successful legislation is even more difficult with a citizen legislature, when every member has a livelihood that can pose a conflict with legislation.

But threading the needle to ferret out outright corruption, though difficult, is necessary. New Mexico needs the Class of 2021 lawmakers to take up the challenge.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.