Stapleton case reveals weak NM oversight - Albuquerque Journal

Stapleton case reveals weak NM oversight

For the past five years, New Mexico Ethics Watch has been digging into the murky, flimsy world of public officials’ financial disclosure statements as required to be filed under the Financial Disclosure Act.

In multiple reports, we have pointed out both the deficiencies in the law and in filed disclosure statements – pushing for more stringent requirements, more stringent and meaningful auditing, and setting out a path to reform either through rulemaking by the secretary of state or legislative reform of scant, outmoded requirements.

Financial disclosure statements are once again in the news, thanks to a search warrant executed against now former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton for alleged corruption. Her 2020 financial disclosure statement lists her husband’s employment as the manager of a restaurant. But she didn’t report his employment as an income source, as required for any source of gross income of more than $5,000 a year. If his earnings were above that in 2020, not reporting them is a clear violation of the Financial Disclosure Act.

In the face of an investigation of alleged kickbacks, Stapleton resigned from the Albuquerque House seat she’s held for 27 years.

Our organization has examined all legislators’ and Cabinet members’ disclosures, finding and detailing woeful deficiencies in reporting and deficiencies in the Financial Disclosure Act itself. All of our reports regarding financial disclosure statements and the law can be found on our website at nmethicswatch.org.

Just recently, as a tangent to research we were undertaking to determine whether any legislators were using capital outlay funds to funnel to businesses or entities from whom they would receive kickbacks – yes, the very issue that prompted the investigation of Stapleton – we discovered several financial disclosure statements where legislators did not report any income.

Thanks to the actions of APS Superintendent Scott Elder in reporting what he found to be suspicious behaviors and transactions of Stapleton, the Attorney General’s Office has found what looks like a long-smoldering fire – one that allegedly has burned state taxpayers by perhaps millions and once again besmirched New Mexico’s public officials. Stapleton, companies she owns and nonprofits with which she is involved received nearly $1 million, according to the attorney general.

This alleged corruption could have been prevented had New Mexico had stronger laws requiring more detailed financial disclosure, more stringent auditing of financial disclosure statements, and real transparency to the public in capital outlay requests and where capital outlay funds actually go.

Although good government groups can talk until we are blue in the face about such reforms, generally we must depend upon the fortitude and courage of upright, ethical legislators to enact these reforms.

Today, we challenge these legislators to come forth and work with Ethics Watch and others to enact meaningful reform of ethics laws, so that citizens and taxpayers can have faith that those who choose to serve the public are in fact doing just that and not serving themselves.

On top of that, it would behoove the Legislature to make all proceedings related to the alleged ethics violations open to the public and recorded. If the rules currently do not allow for public proceedings, then those rules, and other legislative rules governing ethics concerns and proceedings, need to also be on the list for immediate reform.

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