Make ethics commission operate in the open

March 5, 2019

With three out of four voters backing a constitutional amendment to create a state ethics commission in 2018, it is clear New Mexicans are sick and tired of corruption and sleaze in state politics.

Yet, even with such a clear message, the New Mexico Legislature has taken its time this session in passing the enabling legislation to set up the commission. As is always the case, the constitutional amendment establishes the body, but lawmakers set up the rules.

It is essential that lawmakers do the right thing and establish a tough, empowered commission that does its work in the open with the authority to seek out the facts. Anything less would be a betrayal of voters.

The amendment set up a clear operating structure, but the substance of exactly what the commission will do remains in legislative hands — and with less than two weeks to go in the session, lawmakers need to focus on passing the best of the two very different bills being discussed.

House Bill 4, sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, is the best choice, offering greater transparency and the power to issue subpoenas to witnesses and for evidence in search of the truth. The chairman of the commission would be elected by members, giving commissioners independence.

In contrast, Sen. Linda Lopez’s Senate Bill 619 seeks to obscure the work of the commission and would add the unnecessary step of asking a District Court to issue subpoenas, making the process more cumbersome and less efficient. Her vision of a chairman is a lackey appointed by the governor. Most of all, citizens need to know what is happening. Lopez’s bill favors actions conducive to secrecy — not at all the atmosphere that encourages clean government, which flourishes in the sunlight.

Complaints would become public only when and if the commission finds a violation. That’s not good enough. She also seeks to have complaint filers sign confidentiality agreements so that upon the pain of thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time, they cannot talk about the cases for a certain period of time.

House Bill 4, in contrast, allows cases to become public record when the commission’s general counsel determines probable cause. That at least would allow citizens to know what sorts of ethics violations are being alleged and against whom.

Both bills have strange blackout periods around election seasons, something we believe unnecessary. Lopez’s, of course, contains a longer time frame — just about the whole campaign season, from primary filing date to the end of the general election. That’s ridiculous, although we don’t like the House bill’s 60-day blackout, either, even with exceptions for the campaign finance law or Voter Action Act.

When better to investigate a politician for taking a bribe than during the campaign where he or she might have pocketed the loot? And don’t voters have a right to know that a candidate might be tainted? Investigations should take place when legitimate complaints occur. Period.

HB 4 has passed the House and is in the Senate, where Lopez’s bill still sits. Legislators, as they finish the busy last days of this session, need to ignore her secrecy-laden bill and work to pass the strongest possible version of Ely’s bill. In the meantime, we urge Lopez’s constituents in Albuquerque to let the senator know that an ethics commission operating in the dark is unacceptable. Hiding the bad behavior of elected and public officials is not going to be tolerated. Not anymore.

We cannot clean up New Mexico government until potential violators know they will be held to a public accounting. Start with an empowered ethics commission that does its business out in the open, with the power to require testimony and dole out proper punishment. Time is running out.