Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The state Republican Party accused the top Democrat in the New Mexico House on Tuesday of failing to disclose a conflict of interest concerning marijuana legislation.
However, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said state law does not require the disclosure, a stance backed by the director of a fledgling state ethics group.
“The rules are very, very clear that this situation is in no way a conflict of interest,” Egolf said.
Several marijuana-related bills aimed at legalizing recreational use or expanding the state’s medical cannabis program are winding their way through the Legislature during this year’s 60-day session.
Egolf, a private attorney, is representing a medical marijuana patient and both a licensed nonprofit producer and its management company – New Mexico Top Organics and Ultra Health Inc. – in an ongoing lawsuit filed last year against the state Health Department.
The suit against the state Health Department alleges the state has improperly limited the production of cannabis, creating a shortage.
However, state GOP spokesman Tucker Keene said Ultra Health Inc., a company that grows medical cannabis under a contract with the nonprofit producer, stands to benefit if recreational marijuana use is legalized, as proposed in some bills before the Legislature.
Other bills – including a measure passed earlier this week by the Senate – propose increased plant limits for medical marijuana providers.
“Egolf has failed to disclose a clear conflict of interest with regard to the marijuana industry,” Keene said in a statement. “There are many different bills relating to marijuana in the Legislature this year, and Egolf has a vested financial and professional interest in ensuring that those bills get passed.”
However, Egolf said his work with the medical marijuana industry will have no influence on his work as a legislator.
The lawsuit itself doesn’t center on legalization, he said, and it’s almost impossible as an attorney to work with clients who don’t interact with the state government or laws passed by the Legislature in some way.
Egolf also said he handles reporting on a required state financial disclosure form the same way other lawyers who serve in the Legislature do – by disclosing, in the spaces provided on the form, the private law firm that pays him and the state agencies before which he’s represented a client.
As of Tuesday, no marijuana-related bills had reached any committees that Egolf sits on.
Meanwhile, the top Republican in the House – Nate Gentry, the minority leader and a lawyer – also didn’t list any particular clients on his financial disclosure form, which are now being posted online by Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. He said he works primarily in family law.
Egolf’s form mentions his law firm and describes it as a civil law practice. He also noted on the paperwork that he’s helped clients with work involving the Health Department, State Engineer’s Office and Interstate Stream Commission.
Douglas Carver, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan group, said he doesn’t believe Egolf violated the Financial Disclosure Act, based on what he knows of the situation.
But that’s all the more reason, he said, to amend the act to require more information to be disclosed by state officials – as his group has advocated.
“The public should be able to know at a glance if there’s a conflict of interest,” he said.
New Mexico has the nation’s only unpaid Legislature, though lawmakers do receive a $164 per diem payment – intended to offset lodging and food costs – and mileage reimbursement.
The so-called citizen Legislature arrangement has led to arguments about conflicts of interest before, because it’s rare for lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes dealing with their lines of work.