It is easy for public officials to claim they are pro-ethics, easy for them to put words like “Accountability” in the title of their bills – and easy for them to tuck lots of caveats about secrecy into 86 pages of legalese.
Such is the case with House Bill 10, introduced by Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque. Both Democrats, their proposed “Public Accountability Act” waits until page 23 to announce that, with few exceptions, “all complaints, reports, files, records and communications collected or generated by (a newly formed ethics board), complaint review committee or director that pertain to alleged breaches shall not be disclosed by the board or any board member, agent or employee of the board and are not subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act.”
Begging the question, how is that blanket of secrecy accountable to the public?
A new watchdog group that understands how legislation is passed and whether it passes muster has the same question. The board of New Mexico Ethics Watch is chaired by retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson; its executive director is Douglas Carver, a former staff attorney for the Legislative Council Service. Last week, the group issued a statement making clear that any state ethics commission should:
• Be grounded in the state Constitution.
• Be independent of influence from any one branch of government.
• Have enforcement power, including independent investigatory and subpoena powers, and the ability to initiate an investigation absent a complaint.
• Operate so that the commission is transparent in its operations, especially in the manner in which it handles complaints, including regular reporting on the activities of the commission.
• Process complaints in a timely fashion.
In comparison to the 86-page opus offered by Ivey-Soto and Ely, the bipartisan House Joint Resolution 8 is just seven pages. It is sponsored by longtime open-government advocate Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, and Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. Its “State Ethics Commission” proposal dots all the Ethics Watch “i”s – except that it states, “The commission shall maintain as confidential the complaint and the response to the complaint until such time as the response to the complaint is filed or the date the response to the complaint is due to be filed, whichever is earlier.” While a vast improvement, because both complaint and response would become public, Carver of Ethics Watch points out “the Legislature should have faith in the people to be able to distinguish between complaints that are frivolous and those that have merit. Publishing the outcomes of ethics complaints will clarify the nature of the complaint and increase the accountability of public officials who are empowered to protect the public trust.”
In the same vein, Dines has a second bill, HB 73, co-sponsored with Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, that would finally establish a two-year waiting period before former lawmakers can serve as paid lobbyists and perhaps try to trade on their professional relationships at the expense of taxpayers. Thirty-two other states have a similar law and the Journal has long supported such a “cooling-off” period.
For years, the Journal has advocated for ethics reform grounded in accountability and transparency. It is why the Journal supported Dines last session when he pulled his ethics commission joint resolution after Ivey-Soto gutted its transparency and made it a “toothless tiger.” Both are back this session with dueling proposals, and it is clear which proposal has real teeth and which is little more than a wink and a smile regarding accountability.
Lawmakers should send HB 73 to Gov. Susana Martinez, who has led the charge by banning administration officials from lobbying executive agencies or the Legislature for two years after leaving their jobs. And they should improve HJR 8’s transparency and send it to the voters in 2018.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.