New Mexicans, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, wants you to file ethics complaints.
Suspect a state lawmaker is corrupt? No need for an independent state ethics commission. File a complaint — a letter is all it takes — with the Interim Legislative Ethics committee. Lopez thinks the current system works fine.
It was senators sitting on the 16-member Interim Legislative Ethics Committee, after all, who helped persuade Democratic Sen. Phil Griego to resign last year in the middle of the 2015 legislative session for allegedly using his elective office for personal gain. Griego agreed to stipulated facts issued by the Senate subcommittee of the interim ethics committee before resigning.
New Mexico In Depth knows little about the committee. Its proceedings are not disclosed to the public. It’s unclear how often state lawmakers have taken action against one of their own since the committee began in 1993, a year after the House censured Democratic Rep. Ronald Olguin for “improper conduct.” A jury later convicted him of criminal behavior.
Lopez, who co-chairs the committee with House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, Republican of Albuquerque, says the little-known legislative ethics committee has made findings on other state lawmakers, but she wouldn’t say when or about whom when asked by reporters last week.
Sen. Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, Republican of Portales, another committee member, is also a fan of the current system. He couldn’t name the last time the committee had made a finding against a lawmaker other than Griego. But he’s sure the system performs its job.
“Right now that’s the way it’s worked the best and fairest,” Ingle told a gaggle of reporters during a Feb. 17 press conference attended by Lopez and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto.
The day before yet another state ethics commission proposal had died in the Senate Rules Committee, which is chaired by Lopez. Over the years, her committee has functioned as a dying ground for ethics legislation.
Lopez summed up her feelings on the subject.
“An ethics commission … is not going to make anyone more honest. (Listen) It’s not going to make anybody else who’s gonna run for office any more honest than those of us who are. The assumption is that there are many of us who are corrupt,” she said during the Feb. 17 press conference.
A close read of a state ethics commission bill she sponsored in the just-ended session offers clues to her opinion of the idea– the legislation would have allowed for penalties of up to $35,000 on a person who publicly discloses a confidential complaint made to the hypothetical state ethics commission. That’s larger than the fines and restitution former Secretary of State Dianna Duran was ordered to pay after pleading guilty to felony embezzlement of her campaign funds last year.
The proposed penalties point to a major sticking point for lawmakers–the fear that ethics complaints made to an independent, public body will be used against them politically.
That seems to be one of the big reasons why none of the multiple versions of state ethics commission bills has survived to become law since a 2006 ethics task force recommended the idea following a scandal involving a pair of former state treasurers, both of whom wound up spending time in federal prison for corruption.
What seems clear is that many lawmakers like the current system, with a committee of their peers charged with guarding the integrity of the Legislature.
An independent agency armed with subpoena power that might judge their activities threatens the status quo.
Maybe the current system at the Legislature does work. Who am I to know better than state lawmakers who sit on the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee? But given that many New Mexicans have become cynical about politics and a vast majority of the state’s business leaders think public officials’ ethical conduct over the past 20 years has become an issue of concern, letting state lawmakers police themselves doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of the times.
Add to this numerous additional scandals that have given New Mexico a swollen black eye since the treasurer controversies of 2005 and 2006.
The public is tired. What the public wants is change.
If not an ethics commission, then what?
Which is where we left off with Lopez. She says the public simply needs to step forward and do its democratic duty, which is to file ethics complaints with the current internal–and private–legislative committee when it sees something wrong. She made this pronouncement a couple of days before the Jan. 17 press conference. I had asked her during an interview what an alternative might be to address the series of scandals involving public officials if a state ethics commission wasn’t the answer.
“The only way something will come to light is if some member of our public sees it (listen) and is willing to stand up and come forward with a complaint,” Lopez told me Jan. 15 during an interview.
I followed up by asking if she thought the Legislature should share more about how it does business with the public so it can perform its oversight role better.
Lopez said there was already enough information for the public to work with (listen).
Her answer came as a surprise. Compared to many other states, the New Mexico Legislature resembles a black hole from which very little information escapes.
Lobbyists who work in the Roundhouse — unlike in other states — don’t have to report what pieces of legislation, let alone issues, they push for during a legislative session.
And unlike in Colorado and other states, lobbyists — many of them former state lawmakers or legislative staff — don’t have to disclose what they are paid by their clients or provide a detailed accounting of how much they and their employers spend on individual public officials.
As Sandra Fish wrote in NMID’s special legislative edition, “lack of disclosure rules in New Mexico makes it difficult to understand relationships between people, such as lawmakers, lobbyists and their employers; and relationships between timing and people’s legislative actions.”
Meanwhile, what each lawmaker spends in public dollars on projects each year is a guarded secret. Those dollar amounts are exempted from the state’s public records law, according to the Legislative Council Service (LCS). Under the current system, in order for New Mexicans to know which lawmakers funded projects in their districts, those lawmakers must each give permission to LCS to share the information.
And don’t think you can follow the money in the state’s political system, either. Because you can’t.
Unlike other states, New Mexico doesn’t require ‘dark money’ political groups to disclose the names of donors whose dollars are used by those groups for political purposes as long as those amounts are above certain dollar thresholds. These organizations are often referred to as “dark money” groups because they don’t have to disclose those names now.
Even getting good information on campaign contributors is difficult. New Mexico state law only requires donors who give more than $250 to disclose their occupation, and not employer, making it hard to track the influence of special interest groups and industries. In some cases, knowing an employer can help you connect a contributor to certain political players. But not in New Mexico, where companies are able to pump more money into elections if the business owners, executives and employees also give individually because contribution limits apply separately to individuals and corporations.
Following the Legislature isn’t easy either if you aren’t in front of your computer to stream legislative activities in real time. That’s because neither the House nor Senate archives webcasts of their floor sessions or committee hearings, although the House did pass a rule during this 30-day session to start archiving webcasts of committee hearings in the future. (This reality led to a rich irony in Senator Griego’s ethics case. Senators on the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee had no archived footage to review of 2014 Senate floor proceedings involving Griego, so they relied on video recorded by Gov. Susana Martinez’s team of videographers.)
The question that comes to mind as I ponder Lopez’s exhortation for the public to do its democratic duty of overseeing the Legislature is this: How is the public supposed to perform its oversight duties if so much information is kept from it?
Hopefully, this question will occur to Lopez and other state lawmakers as they begin to contemplate another version of the state ethics commission legislation this year.
A committee likely will start meeting in June that will take up the legislation, Lopez told reporters last week.
Listen to Senators Daniel Ivey-Soto, Linda Lopez and Stuart Ingle talk about ethics commission legislation in the Feb. 17 press conference on soundcloud.com.