Looking Back and Forward on Corrupt State Officials

Image from nmlegis.gov.

The 2017 session of the New Mexico State Legislature has seen at least a half dozen bills introduced to tighten up ethical standards and bring more accountability to state political figures. New Mexico is one of only 10 states that does not currently have an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Douglas Carver, director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, says New Mexico could benefit from an ethics commission, but it could also benefit from some small steps in terms of better financial disclosure rules.

“It’s all well and good to talk about ethics commissions and these kind of big grand plans but we don’t even have the fundamentals right in this state,” Carver said. “We have a good network of laws in place, but the problem is getting the authorities who are in charge to aggressively enforce.”

Since 2006, six elected or appointed officials have gone to prison or jail for corruption.

– Michael Montoya, former State Treasurer

Extortion; 40 months in federal prison

– Robert Vigil, former State Treasurer (Montoya’s successor)

Extortion; 37 months in prison

– Manny Aragon, former Senate Pro Tem

Fraud and conspiracy; 67 months in federal prison

– Joe Ruiz, Deputy State Insurance Superintendent

Public corruption; 4 years federal prison

– Jerome Block Jr., former Public Relation Commissioner

Embezzlement, identity theft, conspiracy; 60 days in prison

– Dianna Duran, former Secretary of State

Embezzlement, money laundering; 30 days in jail

Also in 2015, Senator Phil Griego (D-San Jose) resigned from the New Mexico State Senate and is currently awaiting trial on criminal charges.

Another ongoing case involves New Mexico’s Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla, who resigned in December amidst an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office into conflict-of-interest allegations.

In 2015 the Center for Public Integrity teamed up with Global Integrity to conduct a State Integrity Investigation, assessing the systems in place to deter corruption in government. New Mexico ranked 34th among the 50 states. (The investigation did not take into account the cases of Duran, Griego or Padilla.)

New Mexico received an ‘F’ grade in six of the 13 criteria. No state received an overall grade higher than a ‘C’.

– Public Access to Information grade: F (49) rank: 19th
– Political Financing grade: F(48) rank: 36th
– Electoral Oversight grade: D- (60) rank: 33rd
– Executive Accountability grade: F (53) rank: 41st
– Legislative Accountability grade: F (57) rank: 39th
– Judicial Accountability grade: C- (73) rank: 3rd
– State Budget Processes grade: C (74) rank: 27th
– State Civil Service Management grade: D (65) rank: 14th
– Procurement grade: D (64) rank: 38th
– Internal Auditing grade: B- (83) rank: 17th
– Lobbying Disclosure grade: F (51) rank: 43rd
– Ethics Enforcement Agencies grade: F (41) rank: 45th
– State Pension Fund Management grade: C- (71) rank: 17th

Also in 2015, a report done by FiveThirtyEight ranks New Mexico as the fifth most corrupt state in the country when it comes to federal convictions per capita.

Carver says the state’s “greatest weakness” is what he calls the enforcement gap.

“The enforcement gap is one reason our score was so low,” Carver said. “We have good mechanisms…. Good laws on the books, but they’re not being enforced. They’re not being investigated rigorously. We’ve often had Secretaries of State or Attorneys General who say…. ‘I can’t act because I don’t have a complaint before me,’ while the statutes don’t require them to have a complaint before them.”

New Mexico Ethics Watch is a watchdog group who formed in 2016 and primarily focus on the personal financial disclosures of state officials. Last year, they released their Financial Disclosure Act Report, which found many errors in financial disclosure forms by numerous state officials.

“There’s no incentive for…. a legislator to fill these forms out correctly,” said Carver, speaking about the personal financial disclosure forms all state officials are required to fill out annually. “If you wanted to hide something, there’s no penalty for trying to hide…. You just go ‘Oops, my bad,’ you fill out the form, and there’s no penalty.”

Carver recommends doing away with voluntary compliance and making it mandatory.

Asked about two primary ethics bills currently being discussed in the legislator, Carver said that, although he is critical of both, he favors House Joint Resolution 8 over House Bill 10.

“Joint Resolution 8 is a preferred approach, because it’s in the constitution. When a matter is resolved, the complaint and the response become public,” Carver said. “But we prefer transparency before resolution.”

Carver’s criticism of House Bill 10 is that it is not grounded in the state’s constitution.

“Much that is currently open and available for inspections to the public would fall into the darkness of the confidentiality provisions of that bill,” Carver said.

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