Sketchy financial disclosure forms aren't a one-off here - Albuquerque Journal

Sketchy financial disclosure forms aren’t a one-off here

Nobody actually expects a corrupt politician to include illegal kickbacks as an income source on his or her annual financial disclosure statements. If a legislator is going to scheme to get paid under the table for legislation they push, they likely aren’t going to list bribes and kickbacks along with legitimate income in some document on file with the government.

But the recent criminal indictment of former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton illustrates just how weak this state’s financial disclosure laws are for elected and appointed officials – as well as the jaw-dropping inadequacy of the state’s auditing of financial reports.

In the face of the investigation that led to the charges – 28 counts including racketeering, money laundering and fraud – Williams Stapleton resigned from the Albuquerque House seat she held for 27 years. These charges are related to an alleged scheme to personally cash in on a deal she helped broker with a Washington, D.C.-based company through her position with Albuquerque Public Schools. The former lawmaker has denied any wrongdoing.

In Williams Stapleton’s most recent financial disclosure statement, filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, there was at least one glaring discrepancy that, in hindsight, warranted at least some questions.

Her 2020 financial statement lists her husband’s employment as the manager of an Albuquerque 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 her husband’s earnings were above that in 2020, not reporting them would violate the state’s Financial Disclosure Act.

But Williams Stapleton wasn’t the only New Mexico legislator whose financial disclosure filings have problems.

During recent research into the occupations of members of our “citizen Legislature,” New Mexico Ethics Watch found two cases in which lawmakers listed no occupation – not even “retired” – on both their financial disclosure forms and their individual legislator pages on the Legislature’s website. There are two other lawmakers who listed no occupations in their financial disclosure filings but have occupations listed on their individual pages on the Legislature’s site.

There is no indication that any of these were noticed by the secretary of state or anyone else in authority.

For several years, New Mexico Ethics Watch has pointed out the Swiss cheese inadequacies in the law as well as contradictions and omissions in individual disclosure statements. Our most recent report on financial disclosures can be found at https://www.nmethicswatch.org/uploads/1/3/6/2/136215453/nmew_fda-follow-up-report3.pdf.

Our organization has long advocated for clearer and more specific information required for those filing financial disclosure statements, procedures to make it easier for officials to file their reports and for robust oversight and enforcement of Financial Disclosure Act compliance.

We’ve advocated for random deep auditing of reports by the Secretary of State’s Ethics Bureau and for the Legislature to provide more money to pay for this. And we’ve called for requiring more detailed disclosures, including: specificity of income sources; disclosure of financial information for domestic partners, close family and household members, in addition to spouses; disclosure of the relationship between co-owners of real estate listed in their disclosure reports; business partnerships disclosure; and a listing of income by tiers or bands to reveal significance.

One of our recommendations was to provide the secretary of state with statutory authority to promulgate rules and regulations for the Financial Disclosure Act. It was a good sign last year when the Legislature passed and the governor signed House Bill 244, which did just that. Hopefully the Legislature will build on that step and pass more reforms creating more transparency.

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