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New hope in House for independent ethics commission

SANTA FE – New Mexico remains one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission.

But a proposed constitutional amendment to create one is picking up momentum as the Legislature moves into its last week and a half.

The House Judiciary Committee on Monday unanimously endorsed a bipartisan proposal to ask voters in 2018 to amend the New Mexico Constitution to establish an ethics commission. The seven-member board would be authorized to investigate allegations of misconduct levied against elected officials, candidates, state employees, lobbyists, contractors and others.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he would try to have the measure brought to a vote quickly.

“I’d really like to get this over to the Senate,” he said.

Similar efforts have died repeatedly in the Senate, but supporters of this year’s proposal say they are optimistic because of changes in Senate leadership and the support of a Senate co-sponsor, Democrat Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces.

Allegations of ethical misconduct have shaken up the state government in recent years:

• In 2015, then-Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, resigned and pleaded guilty to charges that she misused campaign funds.

• Also in 2015, Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego resigned and he is facing trial on public corruption charges related to the sale of a state-owned building. He is contesting the charges.

• Then-Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla abruptly resigned in December after investigators with the state Attorney General’s Office raided her agency’s offices in search of tax documents – apparently in connection with her work as a private accountant. She hasn’t been charged with a crime.

• Perhaps the most notorious recent allegations center on former Senate leader Manny Aragon, a Democrat who pleaded guilty in 2008 to receiving kickbacks in a scheme to defraud the state in the construction of a courthouse in Albuquerque.

Monday’s committee recommendation came after about an hour of line-by-line review and negotiation with one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque.

Joining Dines as sponsors are Steinborn; Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces; and Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park.

Judiciary Committee members focused particular attention on how to insulate the proposed ethics commission from political influence. They settled on a seven-member board, with support by five members required to take action.

“To the extent we can take politics out of it, we should,” said House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.

They settled on single members appointed by the governor, Senate president pro tem, Senate minority leader, House speaker and House minority leader. The final two members would be selected by the four legislative appointees.

The commission wouldn’t accept anonymous complaints.

The complaints would be made public at the same time as the target’s response to the complaint. The commission would hold its hearings in public.

It would have power to issue subpoenas to obtain documents and require witnesses to attend hearings.

Dines said the openness would help build public confidence in the group’s work.

“Transparency is going to be the key,” Dines said.