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Friday, April 21, 2006
Gov. Calls For Ethics Reform
By Rene Romo and Trip Jennings
Journal Staff Writers
LAS CRUCES Gov. Bill Richardson said Thursday he supports limits on political campaign contributions in New Mexico and bans on gifts to statewide officeholders and legislators.
Richardson, in a speech to the Southern New Mexico chapter of Common Cause, also said he will create a task force to recommend reforms of state ethics and campaign finance laws in advance of the 2007 legislative session.
"It is unacceptable that New Mexico does not limit or include any accountability for campaign contributions or gifts to elected officials," Richardson said. "We're watching on TV each night the fallout from our weak ethics laws."
In an interview later, Richardson said, "I think there should be a gift ban of some kind with statewide officials, executive branch, legislative."
The governor's remarks came on the fourth day of the trial of former state Treasurer Robert Vigil on charges of extortion in an alleged cash-for-government business kickback scheme. Vigil's predecessor in office, Michael Montoya, has already pleaded guilty to extortion and was the first star witness in the federal government's case against Vigil.
New Mexico is one of a handful of states that does not limit campaign contributions to political candidates, though more than 40 other states do, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Besides New Mexico, states that allow unlimited giving include Utah, Illinois, Virginia and Oregon, an NCSL report shows. Surrounding states Arizona and Colorado limit individual contributions while prohibiting corporate and union giving altogether. Texas allows unlimited giving by individuals but prohibits union and corporate contributions.
Richardson said New Mexicans have grown tired of hearing about scandals involving national figures, such as lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as the New Mexico Treasurer's Office.
The scandals have eroded public trust in politicians and government, Richardson said, which has contributed to "low voter turnout, citizen apathy and public cynicism."
"If people don't believe in us, there is no way we can summon their support that is vital to meeting our critical challenges," Richardson said.
Richardson introduced anti-corruption legislation for the 2006 legislative session, but only one piece of the package passed a bill banning gifts and campaign contributions from prospective state contractors during the procurement process.
Matt Brix, executive director of New Mexico Common Cause, said the governor's proposals mirror reforms the government watchdog group has long supported.
"I'm very pleased he (Richardson) showed a willingness to take on this issue," Brix said. "We've got to make sure we get a good product that makes a good strong statement."
State law prohibits legislators, public officers and employees from receiving any money or gift in exchange for any promised official act.
But, as long as no official act is promised in exchange for a gift, legislators and other elected officials are free to accept all sorts of gifts from lobbyists and others, said state Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who attended the Common Cause lunch.
Legislators are not required to report the gifts, though they are required to report campaign contributions.
During legislative sessions, many legislators routinely eat expensive meals courtesy of lobbyists. Last year, a company seeking to build a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico flew two groups of legislators to the Netherlands to tour a similar enrichment plant. The governor himself has accepted a variety of gifts including concert tickets and free travel.
"Clearly, the (New Mexico) Government Conduct Act is not tight enough," Cervantes said of the law prohibiting official acts in exchange for gifts. "It is far too broad and ambiguous and we should be working to greater restrict any gift-giving in connection with public office."
Running afoul of gift restrictions in states that have them can have harsh consequences.
Former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland was released from federal prison in February after 10 months behind bars. The former three-term Republican governor pleaded guilty in 2004 to one criminal count related to "gifts" he received over several years from state contractors and subordinates. Among those gifts were improvements to a lakeside cottage, including a hot tub, and free flights from a charter jet company.
Richardson's ethics reform task force will be chaired by Suellyn Scarnecchia, dean of the University of New Mexico Law School, and former governor Garrey Carruthers, dean of the New Mexico State University College of Business Administration and Economics. Other members of the task force have not yet been named.