New Mexico gets new arbiter on government ethics, corruption
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico state government has a new arbiter to decide on ethical lapses and potential corruption involving public employees, contractors, lobbyists and political candidates.
The state Ethics Commission opened Thursday to field complaints regarding campaign finances, government contracting, gifts from lobbyists and more — at a time when there are spending surges on public infrastructure and efforts to influencing elections in New Mexico.
No complaints arrived by the end of Thursday for the seven-member commission appointed by legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The panel has received one request for advice on ethics matters — another core responsibility — though staff won’t yet reveal the question or say who is asking. Any response will be made public, according to staff.
Voters approved the creation of the Ethics Commission in November 2018, passing a constitutional amendment in the wake of a string of corruption scandals that led to jail time for former Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran and former state Sen. Phil Griego.
Duran was convicted on embezzlement charges for using campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction, while a jury found Griego guilty of charges including fraud, bribery and embezzlement after using his position to profit from the sale of a state-owned building. Former taxation department secretary Demesia Padilla is fighting a criminal charge of engaging in an official act for personal gain.
The constitutional amendment left it to lawmakers to determine the commission’s composition, detailed investigative powers and guidelines on when to conceal or reveal accusations.
The commission must refer criminal matters when detected to state or local prosecutors. It can petition the judiciary for a subpoena to obtain documents or compel witnesses to testify. A judge eventually will be assigned by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Complaints are initially treated as confidential and can be made public with a determination of probable cause and full notification of a public hearing, according to the commission website and state law.
Ethics Commissioner Garrey Carruthers, a former governor, said he expects initial complaints will be filed by state employees who spot improprieties.
“In time, citizens will find this an avenue to express their concerns,” he said.
Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris, a former general counsel to the Department of Finance and Administration, said the new ethics panel still shares responsibilities with the General Services Department regarding government purchasing and contracts.
The secretary of state’s office is still obligated to seek voluntary compliance on apparent violations of campaign finance, lobbying and government conduct laws. Left unresolved, those matters pass to the commission for investigation.
The commission is developing a web-based case management system, similar to online systems for state courts and utility regulators. Its website provides detailed guidance on how to file a complaint, or respond to one.
Stuart Bluestone, a Santa Fe-based attorney, emphasized the commission’s role in educating officials and the public about permissible conduct.
The commission meets in February for the first time since accepting complaints and requests for advisory opinions.