NM department heads, others didn't disclose financial info - Albuquerque Journal

NM department heads, others didn’t disclose financial info

The New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Four Cabinet secretaries, a university chancellor and New Mexico’s chief public defender failed to disclose their income sources and business interests earlier this year as required by state law, according to documents released by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The group of non-filers also included the game and fish director, the chief clerk of the Senate and more than 100 appointees to state boards and commissions, the documents say, including panels on state finance and law enforcement.

The list of individuals who hadn’t filed the required disclosure – due in January – is outlined in a May 23 letter from the Secretary of State’s Office to the State Ethics Commission, two agencies that have been working together to boost compliance with the Financial Disclosure Act.

The Journal obtained the letter through a public records request.

Parts of the list appear to be outdated – some of the individuals no longer hold the position listed – and some officials have since filed the disclosure statement.

But among the agency heads who hadn’t filed by mid-May, according to the letter, were the secretaries of Higher Education, Stephanie Rodriguez; Corrections, Alisha Tafoya Lucero; Information Technology, Raja Sambandam; and Aging and Long-Term Care, Katrina Hotrum-Lopez – all Cabinet-level positions under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said each of the Cabinet secretaries, the game and fish director and others have since filed the paperwork.

“Certainly our expectation is that all governor appointees adhere to the requirements of financial disclosure and submit all required documentation – all cabinet secretaries and agency directors have now completed the required financial disclosure,” she said in a written statement to the Journal.

In New Mexico, elected officials, the leaders of state agencies and certain other appointees are required to file annual disclosures listing their income sources, real estate holdings and business interests – both for themselves and their spouses – as a condition of employment.

It’s due at the end of January each year, though it’s not clear what penalty, if any, has been imposed for failing to file. The disclosure law authorizes fines of up to $5,000 for failing to file by the deadline.

Kathleen Sabo of New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said she was pleased to see state agencies step up enforcement of the Financial Disclosure Act this year. Her own organization’s research, she said, has found “halfhearted” compliance with the law.

“For those making disclosures,” Sabo said, “they serve as a conscious act and affirmation that a public servant is free from conflicts of interest and working for citizens and not themself.”

And it’s important, Sabo said, for the public to have a chance to spot potential conflicts of interest.

Some of the people on the noncompliance list, however, expressed surprise.

Bennett Baur, the chief public defender, said Tuesday that he wasn’t aware he’d missed a deadline.

“I’m pretty sure 155 state employees wouldn’t purposely blow off financial disclosure requirements,” he said.

Baur said he filed his disclosure Wednesday.

A top administrator at New Mexico State University said it was looking into why Chancellor Dan Arvizu was on the non-filers list.

Justin Bannister, associate vice president at NMSU, said the university was working “to get a better understanding of what information is needed and how that might have been missed.”

Sackett said Lujan Grisham and “her administration are fully committed to transparency and open government, a commitment that is reflected by the governor’s enactment of several measures providing for government transparency and accountability, including legislation creating the New Mexico State Ethics Commission.”

The State Ethics Commission this month authorized its staff to send demand letters and go to court if necessary to enforce the disclosure law. About 155 individuals hadn’t filed, the agency said.

In a recent letter to the Governor’s Office, Jeremy Farris, executive director of the ethics commission, urged the administration to ensure high-ranking officials file the required disclosure and made clear that his agency may seek fines, civil penalties and court orders against individuals who don’t comply.

The non-filers are listed in last month’s letter from State Elections Director Mandy Vigil, who works in the Secretary of State’s Office, to the State Ethics Commission.

In the letter, Vigil said she and the ethics commission had worked together to develop a list of who’s required to file and sent reminder notices in January and April.

But those who haven’t filed may now face enforcement action.

Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the formal disclosure of financial information is an important way to build confidence in government and shine a light on potential conflicts.

“We want to err on the side of transparency as much as possible,” he said in an interview.

The move for enforcement comes as the State Ethics Commission also seeks to strengthen the disclosure law itself. The agency has proposed requiring public officials and candidates to offer more details on their income sources and business relationships.

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