House OKs Harsher Corruption Penalties

SANTA FE – The House on Saturday passed a bill to increase penalties for public officials convicted of corruption-related crimes, despite debate on whether the effort would unfairly treat low-level state employees like custodians.

Under House Bill 111, introduced by Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, state workers and elected officials would face as much as one year extra jail time for conviction on corruption-related felonies, such as embezzlement and receiving a bribe or kickback.

The bill would also allow the state to recoup as much as five times the amount of state money lost to corruption from an individual’s state pension and would prohibit individuals convicted of corruption from lobbying or contracting with the state for life.

The bill, which passed the House 41-26, had bipartisan support, but all 26 “no” votes came from Democrats. The measure moved on to the Senate.

Some Democrats said the bill could unfairly increase penalties for low-paid state workers or even elected student government representatives.

House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, questioned whether it’s fair for state law to require a janitor convicted of stealing from a private company to repay only what was taken but demand that a janitor employed by the state repay through his or her pension up to five times what was taken and face an extra year an jail.

“The justice should not be different between two people based upon their employer,” the Democratic leader said. “… At the highest level of political corruption, I understand that makes sense, but to include all members of a (state) pension plan?”

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez praised the passage. “I applaud the House of Representatives for working across party lines to help confront public corruption and I urge the Senate to act quickly on this legislation so we can work to restore New Mexicans’ trust in their leaders,” she said in a statement.

The governor is backing HB 111 as a priority for the Legislature’s 30-day session after former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr.’s felony conviction for illegal use of a state credit card.

Gentry told the House: “I think we need to send the message to the public that … what we will no longer tolerate as a state or as a (legislative) body is public corruption.”

He noted an estimate from the state auditor that New Mexico each year loses up to $250 million to corruption offenses.

“By enacting this bill, by passing this bill, we are sending a clear message that that will not be tolerated,” Gentry said.

Also at the Legislature on Saturday:

♦  The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee gave a favorable recommendation to HB 210, introduced by Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, which would require public officials convicted of a corruption-related crime to immediately vacate their public office.

♦ The Senate Rules Committee backed a bill that would remove state elected officials, including the governor, from the formerly scandal-plagued State Investment Council. Introduced by Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, the bill would also allow legislative party leaders to make appointments.

♦ Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, speaking on the House floor, praised the governor for “sticking to her guns” on the appointment of PRC Commissioner Doug Howe. Martinez has been criticized by Albuquerque pastor Steve Smothermon for appointing a gay man. “I want to commend the governor and thank her for resisting the small minded comments of a hateful person,” Egolf said.

♦ The Senate passed 36-0 Senate Bill 27 as amended, sponsored by Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, to crack down on “bad actors” in the adoption system, who he said are scamming parents and hurting kids.