First members named to New Mexico ethics commission

May 1, 2019

Top New Mexico legislators have appointed the first members to the state’s ethics commission, choosing longtime Santa Fe lawyer Stuart Bluestone and Las Cruces good government advocate Frances Williams for seats on the newly created committee.

Voters last year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment creating an ethics commission after years of campaigning by reformers and successive scandals that landed prominent political figures behind bars or under indictment.

Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year to set up the commission, and officials are now filling the seven-member board.

Legislators empowered the board to oversee the state’s laws on campaign finances, lobbying, financial disclosures and conflicts of interest. It will not have power over local officials, but proponents argue it can be a one-stop shop for advising state officials and candidates on ethics issues as well as enforcing many of New Mexico’s laws.

The top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate will each appoint one member. Those four members will appoint two more. The governor will choose a commissioner, too.

House Speaker Brian Egolf said Monday he is tapping Bluestone, who served as chief deputy attorney general from 1999 to 2007 and later as chief counsel to the attorney general.

In those roles, he worked on ethics and campaign finance issues.

Bluestone was a member, too, of Gov. Bill Richardson’s Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform Task Force from 2006 to 2007. He also has worked in private practice, in the Legislative Council Service and for the U.S. Federal Energy Administration.

An advocate for establishing the commission, Bluestone said Tuesday that it is not a panacea. Still, he said, “We’ve got a unique but a very good, strong system set up here.

“It’s really important to help show the public that the leadership in this state cares about ethics issues and has a one-stop shop available for people to ask questions and get guidance,” he said.

The first big task, he said, is to get organized — for the legislatively appointed commissioners to pick their two appointees and hire an executive director.

Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said Monday she is appointing Williams.

Williams was an official at White Sands Missile Range and went to work as a mediator as well as an instructor in employment law. She also served on the state housing authority, calling foul on corruption at one local housing organization in a case that would prompt greater protections for whistleblowers. And she has worked on local ethics issues.

“What I know about the graft and corruption of this state — it just makes me cry because it’s such a beautiful state,” she said Tuesday.

But Williams added that the law establishing the ethics commission needs further work by lawmakers. She argued the law should include specific requirements for vetting and checking the backgrounds of commissioners. Williams also argued that much of the commission’s proceedings, which will largely be public under law, should instead be private.

Transparency was a major sticking point as legislators debated how to design the new commission. Under the new law, complaints are private until commission staff agree there is probable cause to pursue a case. Thirty days after the target of the case is notified about the finding of probable cause, the matter — along with hearings and documents — will be public.

Williams argued hearings and cases should be closed to the public until the commission determines there is wrongdoing. She pointed to the state’s open meetings law, which allows government organizations, such as boards of county commissioners, to meet behind closed doors to discuss allegations of wrongdoing by personnel.

“Until it’s proven, it should not be a matter of public issue,” she said. “… We’re messing with peoples’ lives.”

Plenty of lawmakers likely agree and could revisit the law in future years.

Bluestone and Williams are Democrats. The state constitution says no more than three commissioners can be members of the same party.

The House and Senate minority leaders have not yet appointed any members to the commission, which is required to meet at least quarterly.