ABQ Journal Editorial: Latest legislative scandal shows the need to widen reach of NM Ethics Commission

Oct 16, 2021 | In the News

Following years of contentious debate in Santa Fe, New Mexico voters in 2018 approved by an overwhelming majority (75%) a state constitutional amendment establishing a State Ethics Commission.

But it was a long slog – even by New Mexico standards. “The Commission,” according to its website, “is the product of over 40 years’ work on the part of Governors, state legislators, advocacy organizations and other New Mexicans.”

It was an important step and long overdue. Now, the commission plans to ask lawmakers next year to increase its staff and budget, and expand its jurisdiction to parts of the state Constitution that prohibit profiting from public office. It also seeks authority over the legal ban on legislators having an interest in contracts authorized by legislation passed during their term and for at least one year after they leave office.

This broader jurisdiction is an important addition to the commission’s watchdog role. While the commission says this proposal was already in the works, it became public after the sweeping indictment of former House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque. She faces 28 counts ranging from procurement fraud to money laundering and racketeering in connection with a contract she oversaw in her former job at Albuquerque Public Schools – a contract for which she also allegedly sought state funding.

If there were any doubt before about expanding the commission’s role, the Stapleton matter should dispel it. One count in the indictment alleges she tried to leverage her legislative position into a promotion at the school district.

There shouldn’t be much debate when it comes to the need for ethics oversight on the role legislators play in passing laws that end up in contracts that bolster their bank accounts. Whether there is the political will to reign in potential double dealing is another matter, but the commission is to be commended for putting the matter squarely out there for public debate.

The commission structure is bipartisan. Four of the seven members are appointed by legislative leaders of the two major parties. That group, in turn, selects two more members, and the governor appoints the chair, who must be a retired judge – a role currently held by former Bernalillo County District Judge William Lang. It is a distinguished and capable group that includes former Gov. Garrey Carruthers (Republican) and former Deputy Attorney General Stuart Bluestone (Democrat).

The commission staff includes an executive director, Jeremy Farris, and general counsel, Walker Boyd.

Jurisdiction now includes the Campaign Reporting Act, Financial Disclosure Act, Gift Act, Lobbyist Regulation Act, Governmental Conduct Act, the Procurement Code and the Anti-Donation Clause of the state Constitution. The commission not only adjudicates complaints falling into those categories, but also is tasked with issuing advisory opinions on ethics questions and providing ethics trainings. The training and advisory opinions are crucial in providing well-intentioned legislators and public officials with the information they need to avoid violating the law.

In addition to a broader oversight role, the agency is seeking approval for a budget of $1.28 million next year, a 40% increase. The extra money would cover the hiring of an attorney, paralegal and database administrator, and also restore a special projects coordinator whose funding was cut earlier.

This budget request is incredibly modest in the context of state funding for something voters considered to be of great importance – namely a government and Legislature run for the public’s benefit, and not for the benefit of public officials and lawmakers.

The agency’s requests are smart and will add to the Ethics Commission’s role in a meaningful way. Legislative leaders and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should embrace them.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.