Ethics Commission Act unanimously passes House

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By Carol A. Clark

The State Ethics Commission Act bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives Tuesday.

HB 151 proposes to create an independent State Ethics Commission, as 40 other states have, to oversee ethics education, training, advisory opinions and investigations throughout state government.

“Ethics are always something we need,” said Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, during an interview from Santa Fe  this morning. “But sometimes when the public gets involved they just look at certain elements. We need to not just look at legislators and finance reform; we need to look at many other areas. The awarding of contracts without going through the proper process is one of our biggest problems. We need ethics reform but we need to include all of these areas.”

This is the third year that Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces has sponsored legislation to form a State Ethics Commission.

“This is a critical component of ethics and campaign reform in New Mexico,” Garcia said in a release.

“By establishing an ethics commission, the citizens of New Mexico can be reassured that all ethical issues will be investigated and the reported findings will be acted upon.”

The measure passed the House with a vote of 64-0 and as proposed, the State Ethics Commission would be an independent and autonomous agency comprised of seven bipartisan members.

Four members would be appointed by the House and Senate Leaders of both parties and three appointments would be made by the governor from each of the three Congressional Districts, with the governor choosing one of those members from a list of five names submitted jointly by the Minority House and Senate Floor Leaders.  

At least four out of seven members must agree on any action to be taken.

The commission would receive and investigate complaints against elected state officials, state employees, government contractors, and lobbyists for ethical violations.  It would report its findings and keep records.

Responsibilities of the SEC would include:

• an annual ethics training and publication of an ethics guide for government officials, government employees, state contractors and lobbyists, and a separate business ethics guide for firms doing business with the state;

• issuance of advisory opinions within 60 days of the request or a notification to the requester that there will be a delay and further notifications every 30 days thereafter until the opinion is issued; and

• publication of all ethics advisory opinions with the names of the requestors deleted.

One of the amendments to the bill was a significant provision intended to prevent investigations from becoming witch hunts so that the Commission can deal with the matter at hand without outside distractions, Garcia said.

Violations of the SEC’s confidentiality rules would be a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine and an additional civil penalty of up to $25,000.

The bill heads to the Senate for consideration.