New Mexico forges ahead with independent ethic commission

March 28, 2019
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham highlights accomplishments by lawmakers at the close of a 60-day legislative session on Saturday, March 16, 2019, at her offices in Santa Fe, N.M. The Democrat-led New Mexico Legislature approved a $7 billion spending plan that raises spending on low-income students, teacher pay and infrastructure. Major policy reforms ran the gamut from new subsidies for renewable energy to background checks on gun sales and a minimum wage increase. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico moved forward Thursday with the creation of an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints about the conduct of public officials, political candidates, lobbyists and government contractors, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed detailed commission guidelines into law.

Voters authorized an ethics commission by statewide ballot last year in the wake of a string of high-profile public corruption scandals. That vote still left lawmakers to determine the commission’s investigative powers and the extent of public access to documents and proceedings.

Under the new law, the commission must go through a district court judge — designated by the Supreme Court — to subpoena documents or witness testimony.

Lujan Grisham said the legislation would “responsibly and effectively make sure that we’re accountable,” while Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth said the initiative strikes the right balance between public transparency and due process for the accused.

The legislation underwent dozens of revisions and substitutions before approval by the Legislature earlier this month.

State Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, had pushed initially for unfettered subpoena power by the commission, but said Thursday that he was satisfied with the final arrangement of district court oversight.

Complaints are to be made public 30 days after a probable-cause finding. Complaints that are dismissed as frivolous or unsubstantiated won’t be released by the commission, but Lujan Grisham said there is nothing in the new law to stop those who file a complaint from going public.

Work in assembling the commission begins July 1, with a six-month startup period.

Six commissioners will be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, and a seventh is appointed by those commissioners.

All but a handful of states have independent ethics commissions or boards to help evaluate complaints.