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Ethics complaint accuses speaker of conflict

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, talks with Republican leadership during debate on a civil rights bill in the House this week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A retired judge has filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker Brian Egolf over his push to establish a state Civil Rights Act, contending the speaker would benefit from its passage as an attorney whose practice includes civil rights cases.

Sandra Price, a retired state district judge in northwestern New Mexico, filed the complaint last week with the State Ethics Commission and a legislative ethics committee.

The four-page complaint says Egolf failed to disclose conflicts of interest and would obtain personal benefit from passage of House Bill 4, legislation he is co-sponsoring to enact a New Mexico Civil Rights Act.

Egolf, a Democrat, is a private attorney in Santa Fe whose work includes personal injury, medical malpractice, civil rights and other civil litigation. He filed a state disclosure form this year reporting that he has a civil law practice and has represented clients before the Health Department and the Taxation and Revenue Department, in addition to the state engineer.

“The complaint is baseless and clearly designed to distract me from my work and to discourage me from fighting for the people of New Mexico,” Egolf said in a written statement.

New Mexico legislators serve part time and don’t draw a salary. They are often either retired or have outside careers that allow them to take breaks for legislative sessions.

The proposed Civil Rights Act would allow lawsuits to be filed in state courts against public bodies to recover financial damages for violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights. It would include a $2 million cap on damages and provide for the award of attorney fees.

Price’s complaint alleges Egolf’s sponsorship of the civil rights legislation violates ethical standards in state law, including a prohibition on elected officials using their powers to obtain personal benefit or pursue private interests.

She pointed to an online legal profile that estimates about 20% of Egolf’s legal practice is civil rights claims and 40% is civil litigation on behalf of plaintiffs. He should have disclosed that to legislators, she said.

“If passed,” Price wrote about the bill, the speaker “will now have greater access to receiving payments from New Mexico’s local and state governments.”

The legal fees provision in the law, she said, would “clearly and unequivocally benefit the private practice of Speaker Egolf.”

Andrew Schultz, an attorney representing Egolf, said he will seek dismissal of the complaint. One of the two sections in the law cited by Price doesn’t apply to legislators, he said, and the other would prohibit almost any lawyer from serving in the Legislature if it were read the way Price suggests.

“I don’t believe this is a gray area at all,” Schultz said. “I think the claims filed against the speaker have no factual basis, and they have no legal basis under the Governmental Conduct Act, which is the only law cited in the complaint that the speaker was supposed to have violated.”

Allegations of potential conflicts at the Legislature surface routinely.

It’s common for ranchers and farmers to vote on agriculture bills, for teachers to participate in education legislation, and for lawyers to vote on measures affecting the courts and state legal system.

The Governmental Conduct Act calls for legislators to use “the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest and not to obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests.” It prohibits legislators from requesting or receiving “any money, thing of value or promise” in exchange for an official act.

In prior years, Egolf himself has made a distinction between laws that affect the public more broadly and bills with an immediate impact on specific pending litigation he is working on.

A year ago, for example, he recused himself from voting on a bill that clarified who may enroll in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program. Egolf said the legislation might affect a pending appeal and underlying case he had filed on how to define a qualified patient for the program.

Price’s complaint is pending with the State Ethics Commission, an independent agency.

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