Ethics agency calls for firmer disclosure laws - Albuquerque Journal

Ethics agency calls for firmer disclosure laws

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The State Ethics Commission is proposing changes to state law that would require New Mexico’s citizen legislators to release more information about their sources of personal income and business relationships.

Separately, the agency is also recommending increased transparency requirements for lobbyists, such as disclosure of what bills they’re working on and the provisions they’re advocating for or against.

Lawmakers – a handful of whom are married to lobbyists – would also have to disclose before voting if any family member lobbied on a bill.

Together, the recommendations are designed to shed more light on potential conflicts inside the Roundhouse, where individual lawmakers have little staff and lobbyists play a crucial role in shaping legislation.

“Over the years, several ethics violation cases have tarnished New Mexico’s reputation and most of them could have been prevented with heightened disclosure laws,” Heather Ferguson, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause New Mexico, said Wednesday.

New Mexico legislators are the only state lawmakers in the country who don’t draw a salary, though they get daily payments during legislative sessions, reimbursements and the option to participate in a retirement system. This year’s daily rate, based on the federal per diem, is $173 to $202, depending on the time of year.

The small pay means most legislators are retired or hold jobs that allow them to take breaks for annual sessions of 30 or 60 days in Santa Fe, in addition to less-formal meetings held throughout the year.

In an annual report released last month, the State Ethics Commission, an independent watchdog agency, called the state’s existing disclosure law for income received by public officials “vague and undemanding.”

The commission proposes repealing the law and replacing it with the commission’s proposed Disclosure Act.

As it stands now, state lawmakers face broad requirements for disclosing income sources over $5,000. Many report, for example, that they draw income from a law firm, farming and ranching, or similarly general categories.

Sonny Haquani, a spokesman for the ethics commission, said the agency worked with the offices of the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor on the proposed Disclosure Act to require more specific reporting.

The changes “would enable the public to identify conflicts of interest and deter violations of the public trust,” he said in a statement to the Journal.

State Auditor Brian Colón, a Democrat, announced his support for the proposal last month.

“The enhanced disclosures will aid in the deterrence of public corruption and strengthen the public’s trust in government,” he said in a written statement.

Criminal charges

The disclosure push comes after then-House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who worked for the school district, resigned earlier this year amid a criminal investigation.

She was later indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and using her legislative position to try to get a promotion at Albuquerque Public Schools. The allegations against her include routing money meant for vocational education at APS to businesses and charities in which she had an interest.

Stapleton and her attorney have denied the charges and say they will fight to clear her name.

The ethics commission report makes no mention of Stapleton. Other elected officials have also faced charges over the years.

In 2018, for example, former state Sen. Phil Griego, who had worked as a real estate agent, went to prison after he was convicted of charges centering on the sale of a historic state building, which required legislative approval.

The new Disclosure Act proposed by the State Ethics Commission would outline detailed requirements for the disclosure of personal assets; debts; sources of family income over $600, including earnings by spouses and dependent children; and property ownership.

Disclosure requirements would also cover membership in corporations and nonprofit groups, gifts of $50 or more from lobbyists and work done by the official or their spouse involving public agencies.

Elected state officials, heads of state agencies, candidates and others would have to file the annual disclosures.

Ferguson said her organization strongly supports the changes. Lawmakers are now barred from accepting gifts exceeding $250 in value from certain donors, she said, but the rules are sometimes skirted by deliberately undervaluing some gifts.

“The $250 gift threshold has been flouted openly over the years, especially with the gift passes given to legislators for activities such as multi-area skiing or golf courses throughout the state that are reported to value at just under… the individual threshold,” she said. “These questionably valued gifts raise the public’s concerns every year. A lower threshold with increased penalties will help to curb this activity.”

‘Blind spot’

The ethics commission is also backing changes that would add transparency to the work of professional lobbyists.

They would have to file two reports during legislative sessions outlining what bills they are working on, their position on the bills and specific provisions they supported or opposed within the legislation.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, introduced similar legislation earlier this year, but it didn’t receive even a committee hearing.

He said last week that he welcomes support from the ethics commission.

“I think we have a huge blind spot in the Legislature knowing the mechanics at work behind pieces of legislation,” Steinborn said in an interview. “It just is really becoming outrageous that session after session we see these bills and you know that somebody is behind them, but the system has got this intentional blind spot that allows the role of those advocates to be concealed.”

In addition to lobbying disclosures, the State Ethics Commission also supports requiring legislators, before a vote, to disclose if a family member lobbied on the bill.

The agency also proposes a two-year ban on ex-legislators and other state officials from becoming paid lobbyists after they leave public service. Similar “revolving door” bans have failed to win full legislative approval in past years.

In 2020, a report by New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonprofit group, found that 34 ex-legislators worked as lobbyists and that another six lobbyists were spouses or relatives of legislators.

Timing question

The commission’s proposals aren’t guaranteed to be heard in the 2022 legislative session.

Lawmakers are set to meet for a 30-day session starting Jan. 18 dedicated largely to budget legislation.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is empowered to add other items to the agenda. For the coming session, for example, she has said she will ask lawmakers to make it easier to hold people in jail if they’ve been accused of a violent crime, to create a $100 million fund to add police officers and to pass a law intended to make New Mexico a hydrogen hub.

In odd-numbered years, the legislative agenda isn’t restricted.

The State Ethics Commission, which was established through a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2018, issues a report each year recommending amendments to New Mexico’s ethics laws.

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