State ethics officials grapple with a paradox in their daily work, said Jeremy Farris, executive director of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission.
On the one hand, the heart of their work is designed to ensure the public knows that elected officials and government workers are held accountable in how they use the powers and resources entrusted to them. Why? Because those powers and resources belong to the people, not individuals holding public positions. This is one of two “big ideas” that motivate the commission, Farris said.
The commission does that work by enforcing state ethics laws through investigations and in some cases, suing people. “If someone steps outside of the line, in terms of violating the public trust or are not fulfilling their disclosure obligations, they’re going to get caught out, and the situation will be corrected,” Farris said.
But as those enforcements are publicized, which lets the public know there’s accountability, the more likely distrust in government will grow. “We’re in this complicated balance,” he said.
Farris made the comments during a conversation with Trip Jennings, New Mexico In Depth’s executive director, last Thursday at the school of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico. They talked about the history and purpose of the ethics commission, how the commission has grown since it kicked off four years ago, how lawmakers view the commission today and how current ethics laws could be improved.
The other big idea is disclosure, which Farris described as central to American democracy. Specifically, the commission focused on enforcing financial disclosure — so the public can see who gives money to elected officials to run for office, what their sources of personal income are, and what assets they hold.
Farris said a bill introduced by Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, over the past couple of years would vastly improve the current financial disclosure obligations required of state officials. Called the Disclosure Act, the bill is based on the American Law Institute’s model on disclosure in government, he said, but it “got nowhere” at the statehouse.
But Albuquerque city councilors took note, copying it into an ordinance and passing it.
“The City of Albuquerque has done something tremendous with respect to financial disclosure in the past year,” Farris said. “The city of Albuquerque now has one of the best disclosure regimes for financial disclosure, I think, in the country.”
What’s needed at the state Legislature to move the needle to improve disclosure? According to Farris, “We need powerful legislators who care about these issues.”
The entire conversation, including the question and answer section at the end, is well worth the time of anyone interested in what New Mexico is doing to increase public trust in government.