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How ethics fixes died in this year’s legislative session


An effort to fix the state’s anticorruption statute after the New Mexico Supreme Court barred prosecutors from bringing criminal charges under several of its provisions died in the state Senate. The legislation languished in a committee after clearing the House 66-0 with two weeks to go in the legislative session, which ended at noon on Feb. 15.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham greenlighted the effort to fix the ethics law as the session kicked off in January. House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Cates, D-Rio Rancho, would have fixed the Governmental Conduct Act, which provides standards for ethical conduct on the part of public officials, employees for state or local agencies, and lawmakers.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that three of the statute’s four provisions used by prosecutors were too vaguely written to result in criminal charges.

Justices considered the statute in a consolidated case involving a county treasurer who offered money to an employee for sex; a district attorney used her position to intimidate officers investigating her use of a public vehicle for personal reasons; a judge who illegally recorded private conversations in a courthouse; and a state cabinet secretary who used her position to access the tax records of a previous employer. In the latter case, prosecutors alleged she was trying to prevent an audit of that employer because she had embezzled money from them. (Her embezzlement conviction was later overturned on appeal with the court saying the statute of limitations had run out.)

After the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors couldn’t criminally charge these public officials for state ethics violations.

The proposed fixes to the current ethics law included barring partisan political activity while on duty or undertaking it in a way that uses public resources. And the legislation sought to clarify when actions amount to abuse of office, misuse of public property, seeking financial gain from official acts or quid pro quo corruption.

The rewrite of the law moved through the House of Representatives fairly quickly, but stalled for almost two weeks in the Senate after being assigned to that chamber’s Judiciary committee. It finally received a short hearing Wednesday, with lawmakers questioning measures in the bill but not taking it to a vote.

One committee member, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, didn’t think the bill was clear on how the bill protects lawmakers from unwarranted charges of corruption.

Ivey-Soto asked how lawmakers who recuse themselves because of conflict of interest are protected under a proposed provision seeking to prevent them from voting or omitting to vote on a matter in exchange for financial benefit.

He described a scenario where a lawmaker might recuse themselves from voting because of a conflict of interest, and the vote on the matter then goes one way or the other by just one vote. Could that lawmaker be charged with corruption because they didn’t vote, he asked?

Cates and her expert witness, attorney Mark Baker, sought to assuage Ivey-Soto that a lawmaker recusing themselves due to a conflict of interest would not be the same thing, and that any such charges would be “refereed within the Legislature itself.”

But Ivey-Soto was unconvinced. He said he didn’t disagree with the direction of the bill, but that the way it was written was important to make sure lawmakers trying to be transparent about conflicts of interest aren’t caught up in a felony investigation.

The lack of action in the Senate comes at a time when a former state lawmaker, Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a Democrat from Albuquerque who served as the second-highest-ranking lawmaker in that chamber before she resigned, is reportedly negotiating a plea deal with authorities after being indicted in 2021 on numerous criminal counts, including racketeering, money laundering and fraud.

New Mexicans are long familiar with public corruption at the highest level. There’s the cabinet secretary whose case the Supreme Court considered – Demesia Padilla, tax and revenue secretary for former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. She resigned in 2017 one day after state Attorney General investigators raided the state agency’s offices.

In 2018, former Democratic Sen. Phil Griego was sent to prison for 18 months after ushering the sale of a state building through the Senate, and later pocketing a $50,000 real estate fee for the sale. Later that year, he got an extra year tacked on for using money in his campaign account for personal reasons.

In 2015, Republican secretary of state Dianna Duran resigned after using campaign funds for gambling. She later pleaded guilty to embezzlement and campaign finance violations, and was given a 30-day jail sentence.

Ethics, anticorruption, NM Legislature