The saga that humbled state senator Daniel Ivey-Soto this week is the kind of political theater that hypnotizes the chattering political class.
A mixture of sexual harassment allegations and an unsuccessful coup against Sen. President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, with whom he has clashed, led Ivey-Soto to resign Thursday as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee before his colleagues could remove him.
It was a very public drama that generated blaring headlines and gossipy conversations.
Beyond all the hot takes and salacious titillation, however, it’s important that we not forget the institutional weakness that got us to this point.
Skepticism has always swirled around lawmakers’ claim that they can police themselves. The Ivey-Soto episode is merely the latest reminder that they do a poor job at it and why investigations of lawmakers should be handed over to an outside agency.
First, some context. The state Senate empaneled a panel of Ivey-Soto’s peers — in this case, other state senators — earlier this year to review, with the help of an outside attorney, an allegation by a lobbyist that he had sexually harassed her. A month later, several other women accused the Albuquerque senator of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, allegations that were added to the inquiry.
The case proceeded in complete secrecy until a couple of weeks ago when the Albuquerque Journal published an op-ed by Ivey-Soto in which the third-term senator wrote the case against him had been closed. An official announcement that there had been no finding of probable cause to warrant a deeper investigation would not be made, he wrote.
Except what he wrote was misleading, as the Santa Fe Reporter weekly newspaper pointed out shortly after Ivey-Soto’s op-ed ran in the Journal. Relying on the confidential report attorney Thomas Hnasko had prepared for the lawmakers reviewing the allegations against Ivey-Soto, the weekly newspaper reported Hnasko had written that “there was reason to believe Ivey-Soto violated the state’s anti-harassment policy twice, but not a third time.”
Had the subcommittee voted to move forward, the case would have gone to the full ethics committee’s investigative subcommittee, the Reporter wrote, “which would have appointed a special counsel—typically a different attorney than the one who assists Senate leadership—to investigate.”
Even with Hnasko’s findings of probable cause, however, the case against Ivey-Soto didn’t proceed. It’s unclear why.
The irony in this case is that the legislative rules around such investigations allow the accused to go public to trumpet their innocence if they want, as Ivey-Soto did in his Journal op-ed. Meanwhile, those who accused Ivey-Soto were barred from speaking publicly — a situation that led the lobbyist who first accused Ivey-Soto of sexual harassment, Marianna Anaya, “to file a civil complaint in a Santa Fe state court, arguing that the statute that has kept everyone tight-lipped about the investigation violates the New Mexico Constitution,” the Reporter wrote.
Anaya’s attorney “criticized the law for allowing Ivey-Soto to publicly speak about the allegations against him while effectively silencing Anaya.”
The Ivey-Soto case provides yet another stunning reminder why state lawmakers should not be left to police themselves. Scandal has plagued New Mexico’s Legislature for decades. In recent years, a state senator has gone to prison and a state representative is under indictment on corruption charges — episodes that came as a shock to their colleagues in the Legislature.
State lawmakers should abandon the star-chamber secrecy and hand investigations of legislators over to an outside agency like the state’s new independent Ethics Commission.
Perhaps doing so will help restore some of the public’s trust in the Legislature.