Court upholds dismissal of criminal charges under ethics law - Albuquerque Journal

Court upholds dismissal of criminal charges under ethics law

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – State Attorney General Hector Balderas is calling on legislators to strengthen New Mexico’s anti-corruption law following a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the dismissal of criminal charges against four defendants.

Balderas, a Democrat whose term ends this year, said the court “took away from citizens a very necessary tool to prosecute public officials who use their public office for their own personal gain.”

The case dealt with the dismissal of ethics charges against a series of former public officials, including a former Doña Ana County treasurer, an ex-district attorney and former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla. The decision doesn’t affect Padilla’s embezzlement conviction last year.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion centered on the enforcement of three provisions in the Governmental Conduct Act – subsections that direct officials to treat their positions as a public trust, conduct themselves in a way that justifies the confidence placed in them by the people and disclose conflicts of interest.

In a 24-page opinion authored by Chief Justice Shannon Bacon, the court ruled the sections were never intended by legislators to be enforced as criminal statutes. Instead, the court said, they are aspirational goals that provide general guidance.

The language doesn’t “spell out what act or omission is required for its violation and does not establish criminal elements that could inform clear jury instructions,” the court said.

The decision didn’t address civil enforcement.

The criminal ethics charges against the defendants had been dismissed at the District Court level, but the Court of Appeals later reinstated some of the charges.

The Supreme Court last week reversed the Court of Appeals’ determination that the three sections at issue could result in criminal liability. The justices affirmed the lower courts’ dismissal of charges.

Four ex-public officials were named in the litigation:

⋄ Former Doña Ana County Treasurer David Gutierrez, who was accused of pursuing an unwanted sexual relationship with one of his employees.

⋄ Former 6th Judicial District Attorney Francesca Estevez, who was accused of using her position to intimidate or manipulate police officers investigating whether she had improperly used a state-owned vehicle for personal use.

⋄ A former San Juan County magistrate judge, Connie Lee Johnston, accused of illegally recording the communications of her co-workers and colleagues in secure areas of a court building.

⋄ Padilla, who had been accused of using her position as secretary of taxation and revenue to access tax records of her old accounting firm and records of former clients.

The Legislature is set to open a 60-day session in January, when lawmakers may take up legislation revising ethics laws and other statutes.

Jeremy Farris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said the Supreme Court decision should have only a minor impact, if any, on his agency’s ability to enforce anti-corruption laws. The commission focuses on civil and administrative remedies, he said, not criminal charges.

But he agreed the Legislature should tighten the state laws on ethics and disclosure.

“The Governmental Conduct Act’s civil penalty provisions – $250 per violation – are sorely outdated,” Farris said, “and the Financial Disclosure Act is simply too undemanding to inform the public about conflicts of interest.”

Balderas, for his part, urged the Legislature to work with the ethics agency to “strengthen these laws in order to build public trust with our community which has grown skeptical and tired of corruption.”

The Capitol has been rocked by corruption allegations in recent years. Ex-House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, resigned last year amid a criminal investigation. She denies the charges.

In 2018, former state Sen. Phil Griego, a San Miguel County Democrat, went to prison after he was convicted on bribery and other charges.

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