NM ethics agency seeks expanded staff, jurisdiction

Oct 4, 2021 | In the News

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The State Ethics Commission will ask lawmakers next year to sharply increase its staff to ensure the agency can carry out its role as an independent watchdog.

The agency also agreed Friday to ask the Legislature to expand its jurisdiction to the parts of the state Constitution that prohibit profiting from public office and ban legislators from having an interest in contracts authorized by legislation passed during their term.

The requests come after the indictment of ex-House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who resigned earlier this year amid a criminal investigation.

The charges against her include racketeering, soliciting or receiving kickbacks, and having an unlawful interest in a public contract. Stapleton, through her attorney, maintains her innocence and has vowed to clear her name.

The commission’s request for expanded jurisdiction, however, has no connection with the Stapleton investigation, which became public after the request was prepared, said Jeremy Farris, the commission’s executive director.

In an interview, he said the constitutional provisions at issue are simply a natural fit for the State Ethics Commission’s core mission and expertise.

The commission itself is relatively new, having been authorized by voters in 2018.

The agency is seeking approval next year for a $1.28 million budget – an increase of 40% over what the agency received this year.

It would be enough to boost the staff from five to nine employees.

The agency endured a 5% budget cut this year, and – even without the added constitutional jurisdiction – lawmakers have expanded the agency’s duties, directing it to handle enforcement related to notaries public.

“We absolutely have to have a larger staff to run this agency,” Farris said during a commission meeting Friday. “It won’t work with five.”

The extra money would cover the hiring of an attorney, paralegal and database administrator, in addition to restoring a special projects coordinator whose funding was cut earlier.

“I think it’s a very sound and prudent proposal,” said Stuart Bluestone, a Santa Fe attorney and member of the State Ethics Commission.

The commission’s primary duties now include the adjudication of complaints accusing state officials and others of ethical violations; pursuing enforcement of ethics laws in court; and issuing advisory opinions and educating public officials.

The agency sued a political committee last year and has reached settlements requiring public disclosure of campaign spending and contributions.

The expanded jurisdiction, if approved, would grant the commission authority over constitutional provisions prohibiting:

• Increased compensation for public officials during their term of office.

• Legislators having an interest in any state or city contract that was authorized by law during their term or for one year afterward.

• State officials who already draw a salary from drawing outside fees or otherwise profiting for their service in public office.

New Mexico legislators are set to start a 30-day session Jan. 18 dedicated, in part, to crafting a budget package for the coming year.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, has also called on state lawmakers to tighten the state’s public corruption laws.

The State Ethics Commission is a seven-member, bipartisan group, created through a 2018 constitutional amendment.

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