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Harvey Yates Jr. recently floated the idea of a standing legislative committee with subpoena power “to investigate alleged bad acts within New Mexico government.”
The former state chairman of the Republican Party had in mind former Gov. Bill Richardson, but also acknowledged that the current administration has problems beyond coffee pots and alligators. He wants a legislative committee because he has no confidence in Attorney General Gary King; it’s getting hard to find anybody with confidence in King.
Yates asks: “How do we root out corruption in this state?”
For more than two decades, lawmakers have debated ethics bills, which mostly go nowhere. The arguments, both flimsy and substantial, are the same year after year.
In her memoir, “A Woman in Both Houses,” former senator and representative Pauline Eisenstadt describes her own crusade. She believes most elected officials serve honorably, but couldn’t ignore reports of sleazy practices in the Legislature, including lobbyists told to make political donations if they wanted their bills to be heard in committee.
With bipartisan support, she introduced her first bill in 1990 to establish a legislative ethics committee. It failed. In 1991, she introduced a bill to create an ethics commission. That year Attorney General Tom Udall charged Rep. Ronald Olguin with attempted bribery, conspiracy and attempted fraud after he promised to get $100,000 from the state for a nonprofit if it paid a $15,000 “fee.” It was Eisenstadt who helped blow the whistle on her fellow Albuquerque Democrat by urging the nonprofit to contact Udall.
With wind in her sails, Eisenstadt in 1992 tried to pass a resolution calling for the public to vote on the creation of an ethics commission. It failed.
For three years she bucked the prevailing attitude, expressed by House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, that reforms were unnecessary. When Olguin was convicted, Sanchez said it was proof the system was working. Raymond passed from the scene, but in recent years his younger brother, Senate President Michael Sanchez, is still arguing that reforms are unnecessary. Plenty of Republicans have chimed in with the Democratic Sanchez brothers that “you can’t legislate ethics.”
Eisenstadt was out of politics by the time Senate President Manny Aragon was sentenced in 2009 for his part in attempting to steal $4.4 million in taxpayer money from a courthouse project, but other reformers jumped in. Outrage produced five 2010 proposals for an ethics commission, which fell on the same objections raised in the 1990s. To be fair, Richardson in his time fought hard for ethics reforms, including an ethics commission with subpoena power, proposed by his appointed task force, and the Senate gutted them all.
To lawmakers, the notion of a powerful ethics commission conjures an image of a shooting gallery in which they’re the ducks. Who would sit on such a commission and how they would be chosen to assure fairness? What’s to prevent politically motivated accusations from ruining people?
Since 2010 bills have offered witch-hunt protection by maintaining confidentiality for the accused until the investigations are complete. One bill would have staved off investigations during election season (more witch-hunt protection), but what if the law bottled up information voters should hear?
It all comes down to transparency, a pillar of ethical reform to good-government groups like Common Cause. Those under scrutiny would prefer frosted glass.
In 2010, candidate Susana Martinez stood in front of the same courthouse that tried and sentenced Manny Aragon and promised transparency. As governor, she’s found it easier said than done.