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Ethics bills reveal paranoia

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By Sherry Robinson

We made progress on ethics reform this year, in a roundabout way.

An ethics commission is probably the single most important step. After years of weak excuses by legislative leadership of both parties, of ethics bills bottled up in committee, we finally got to the root of their reluctance: They feel a big target painted on their backs and the higher they are in the pecking order, the bigger the target.

 “You’re giving a small group of people a lot of power and you have to make sure you set it up as well as possible before you let this animal go,” said she who did much of the bottling, Sen. Linda Lopez.

The code word last year was “structure.” Translation: Who would sit on such a commission and how would they be chosen to assure fairness? The code word this year was “witch hunt.”

It’s not paranoia if “they” really are out to get you. Remember that Gov. Toney Anaya was the subject of a vague, politically motivated investigation that exposed his children to taunts at school, probably cost a fortune to defend, wasted a lot of time and found nothing. In the wasteland we call politics, an accusation can ruin reputations and take years to disprove.

It’s not hard to understand lawmakers’ fears, but that doesn’t justify their foot dragging.

New Mexico is one of

10 states without an independent ethics commission to investigate allegations of misconduct of public officials, a fact that prompted the Wall Street Journal last year to call us the “political wild west.”

We can’t blame the lack of progress on the governor — he who is at the end of some pointing fingers. The governor has prodded the Legislature for years on ethics reform; the task force he created has twice made proposals.

Embarrassment should have been a motivator. In 2005 we saw the state Treasurer’s Office unravel and two former treasurers sent to prison. Then there was the sorry spectacle of the Senate President Pro Tem planning to steal taxpayer money even as he introduced bills. The governor presented a package of reforms to the Legislature in 2006. Nothing happened. The task force recommended an ethics commission, among other steps. In 2007, not much happened. Ditto the special session that year and the regular session in 2008.

Last year lawmakers introduced dozens of ethics bills, including several that would establish an ethics commission. “We desperately need a new investigative body of this kind here in New Mexico,” wrote Loyda Martinez, of Common Cause.

The best of the bunch was a bill by Reps. Mary Helen Garcia and Al Park that allowed the three branches of government to appoint members, gave the commission full subpoena power and required that complaints remain confidential until the commission determined an investigation was in order. But it provided more protections for legislators than it did executive branch officials.

This year we saw five bills to create a commission and each one would have provided confidentiality to the accused until the investigations were complete. They all died. But in the one with the most traction, fear of witch hunts led to so much proposed confidentiality that all proceedings and documentation would be out of the public eye and if the commission found guilt, it would issue a report. Not acceptable, said reformers.

Complainants would have to keep quiet, a requirement that might be unconstitutional. A prohibition on investigations during election season might avoid witch hunts at the cost of hiding information voters should know about. And the state would have to pay for legal defense unless the individual was found guilty.

This is all so much jaw — boning. Forty states have these commissions. It’s just not that hard to find a working model that addresses everyone’s concerns and adopt it.

© New Mexico News Services 2010