Lawmakers for second year kick ethics fixes down the road

An effort to fix the state’s anti-corruption statute after the New Mexico Supreme Court barred prosecutors from bringing criminal charges under several of its provisions died in the state Senate. The legislation languished in a committee after clearing the House 66-0 with two weeks to go in the legislative session, which ended at noon today. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham greenlighted the effort to fix the ethics law as the session kicked off in January. House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Cates, D-Rio Rancho, would have fixed the Governmental Conduct Act, which provides standards for ethical conduct on the part of public officials, employees of state or local agencies, and lawmakers. 

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that three of the statute’s four provisions used by prosecutors were too vaguely written to result in criminal charges.  

Justices considered the statute in a consolidated case involving a county treasurer who offered money to an employee for sex; a district attorney who used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons; a judge who illegally recorded private conversations in a courthouse; and a state cabinet secretary who used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. In the latter case, prosecutors alleged she was trying to prevent an audit of that employer because she had embezzled money from them. (Her embezzlement conviction was later overturned on appeal with the court saying the statute of limitations had run out.)

After the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors couldn’t criminally charge these public officials for state ethics violations. 

The proposed fixes to the ethics law included barring partisan political activity while on duty or undertaking it in a way that uses public resources.

Bill would amend current law to allow lawmakers into cannabis biz early

Back in 2021, before voting to make recreational use of cannabis legal, lawmakers on the Senate floor barred any lawmaker serving at that time from going into the commercial cannabis license until 2026. Lawmakers debating the provision that year brought up potential conflicts of interest among voting lawmakers who might have plans to participate in a future cannabis industry. 

Now, lawmakers have removed that prohibition in a bill that is making its way through the Senate. The Senate Judiciary committee last week created a substitute bill that included the change. 

Screen capture of an amendment to 2024’s Senate Bill 6 would remove a prohibition on lawmakers who legalized cannabis from entering the cannabis industry until 2026. Senate Bill 6 contains numerous changes to the cannabis regulation act, which its sponsor, Sen. Katy Duhigg, said stem from lessons learned in the almost three years cannabis has been legal in New Mexico. Duhigg said she was carrying it on behalf of the agency that regulates cannabis companies. 

The original bill this year kept the prohibition on lawmakers who voted on legalization in 2021 from getting into the cannabis business until 2026.

NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss government transparency, ethics and the Governmental Conduct Act

New Mexico In Depth editors held the third of five online chats about the 2024 legislative session last week. Professor of Practice of Journalism at the University of New Mexico, and occasional contributor to New Mexico In Depth, Gwyneth Doland, joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress to discuss government transparency, legislative modernization efforts, and the Governmental Conduct Act. Doland kicked off the conversation talking about the 14 students she takes to the Roundhouse every Wednesday and their experience thus far. “It’s interesting and cool to see things through their eyes,” she said, while noting that for newcomers, navigating the state capitol during a legislative session can be a lot to take in. 

The three discussed efforts over the past 15 years to make the statehouse more accessible and understandable, including webcasting, budget transparency efforts, and showing what is stricken or added through amendments lawmakers adopt to change legislation, and making bills easier to track. One step backwards Jennings mentioned is that certain areas of the capitol have been closed to the public, making it more difficult to reach lawmakers for a conversation.

Gov. Lujan Grisham will greenlight fixes to gutted anti-corruption law

The New Mexico Supreme Court in September 2022 removed the ability for prosecutors to criminally charge public officials for a range of ethics violations. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office confirmed via email Friday afternoon that she will empower state lawmakers to consider returning that power to prosecutors in the legislative session that starts Tuesday.Because it’s a short session, putting together the state budget takes priority, although a governor can add non-budgetary topics to the agenda. In this case, the topic will be the  state’s Governmental Conduct Act, the statute affected by the 2022 court ruling. 

The Supreme Court decision came out of litigation involving four separate cases featuring unethical behavior by local and state public officials between 2011 and 2018.A Doña Ana County treasurer offered money to an employee for sex.  A District Attorney in Grants used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons. An Aztec magistrate judge was removed from the bench by the state supreme court for illegally recording her colleagues in secure areas of a court building.  A New Mexico Taxation and Revenue cabinet secretary used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. (Prosecutors alleged Demesia Padilla was trying to prevent the audit of a former client, from whom prosecutors alleged she had embezzled money.

Talking ethics with New Mexico Ethics Commission director, Jeremy Farris

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.

New harassment allegations against lawmaker prompt call for state ethics commission to handle future complaints

Representatives of eight organizations called for a powerful state senator to resign Monday or for his legislative colleagues to remove him from office if he didn’t leave, in an open letter containing new allegations of sexual harassment and bullying.The accusations against Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto come a month after a lobbyist for Progress Now New Mexico, Marianna Anaya, accused the Albuquerque Democrat of sexually harassing her. Seven of the eight people accusing Ivey-Soto on Monday in the open letter were not named but gave the organizations’ permission to share their experiences, the letter states. 

After receiving Anaya’s complaint in February, legislative leaders opened an investigation into Ivey-Soto, adhering to a system where complaints against state lawmakers are kept confidential in a procedure overseen by other lawmakers. Ivey-Soto told New Mexico In Depth on Monday that he “will participate” in that investigation, but declined to respond to the specific allegations listed in Monday’s three-page letter, sent to state Senate leadership and media organizations. He also declined to respond to the allegations leveled against him last month by Anaya.One of the complainants in Monday’s open letter, Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, isn’t satisfied with the current process in which lawmakers police themselves, saying it doesn’t build an atmosphere of trust. “Right now, when victims file a complaint they are turning it over to friends and colleagues of the lawmaker,” she said. “It’s a conflict of interest.” 

“It’s time for that space to be safe and professional for everyone,” Ferguson added, saying that anyone at the statehouse who abuses the power of their office should be held accountable.