Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Creditors Dog New Mexico Utility Commissioner
By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
Since 1995, state Public Regulation Commissioner Carol Sloan has filed for bankruptcy, been sued at least seven times for nonpayment of college loans and other debt, and her government wages have been garnisheed repeatedly by creditors.
Here's the rub: Someone who can't manage her finances is making decisions on money matters for you.
As a member of the Public Regulation Commission, Sloan helps decide how much we can be charged by electric and natural gas utilities, telephone companies and others.
She was a key "yes" vote when the commission voted 3-2 in 2008 and again last spring to allow PNM to increase its electric rates and surcharges.
More recently, Sloan made headlines for something that had nothing to do with her votes on the PRC.
On July 14, Sloan allegedly stormed into a woman's apartment in Gallup, repeatedly hit the woman in the head with a rock, kicked the woman and accused the woman of having an affair with her husband.
Sloan faces felony charges of aggravated battery, aggravated burglary and criminal damage to property. Through an attorney, she has denied the charges.
Sloan, 55, a Democrat from Twin Lakes on the Navajo Nation, was elected to a four-year term on the PRC in 2006. She previously served 12 years as McKinley County clerk.
Court records show she has been sued for unpaid debts by the New Mexico Education Assistance Foundation, financial services companies and a Gallup furniture store.
While Sloan was county clerk, the foundation had her wages garnisheed to recover more than $12,000 in judgments plus interest for unpaid student loans.
Last spring, a judge ordered that Sloan's wages as a PRC member be garnisheed so a bank could recover more than $39,000 from the commissioner. The garnishment came more than three years after a judge ordered Sloan to pay the judgment.
Another financial services company is now seeking to garnishee Sloan's wages to recover a judgment of more than $1,000. A judge ordered her to pay that money in 2005.
Sloan filed for bankruptcy in 1997 to discharge debts owed at that time. She listed liabilities of more than $40,000 and assets of nearly $5,400, according to an Internet service that compiles bankruptcy data.
The commissioner, who earns $90,000 in the job, couldn't be reached for comment on the bad-debt lawsuits and bankruptcy.
She's not alone
As you probably know, Sloan is part of a bigger personnel problem at the PRC.
Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. was indicted in April on embezzlement, conspiracy and other charges related to the finances of his campaign last year. Also charged in the case is his father, former PRC member Jerome Block Sr. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Two years ago, a jury awarded a woman more than $840,000 in a sexual-harassment lawsuit against a third PRC member, David King. Taxpayers footed the bill.
The PRC was created in 1999 by a constitutional amendment, taking over the duties of the old state Corporation and Public Utility commissions. PRC members are elected by districts around the state.
In the decade since the PRC's establishment, some legislators and others have periodically called for doing away with the election of commission members and for having them appointed by the governor.
Given the troubles of Sloan, Block and King, another push for the appointment of PRC members seems likely, but I'm not sure we need to give up so soon on an elected commission.
After all, voters were well-aware of the campaign finance troubles of Block before electing him last year.
King, a member of one of New Mexico's most famous political families, was elected in 2002 despite a rocky four years as state treasurer, including allegations of sexual harassment.
And Sloan's financial troubles have been a matter of public record for more than a decade.
We clearly haven't been electing our best and brightest to the PRC, but that's true elsewhere in state government, as well. Need I recite the other elected positions once held by the recently convicted or indicted?
At the PRC and elsewhere, we are reaping what we sowed. We need to do a better job at sowing.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org