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Is New Mexico the most corrupt state?

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By Jay Miller

 

Has anyone ever told you New Mexico is the most corrupt state in the nation? I’ve heard it for years, including from an FBI agent, who investigated our financial corruption mess. 

Since I was a kid, I remember hearing that some powerful New Mexican, maybe Dennis Chavez, as saying that if you want to get a degree in political corruption, go to Chicago. If you want to get a Master’s Degree, go to Louisiana. But if you want a doctorate, go to New Mexico. 

If you ask people from the East Coast, they’ll probably tell you that New York and New Jersey are the most corrupt states. It just depends on where you’re from. 

New Mexicans can point out that former Sen. Manny Aragon still is in federal prison in Colorado for getting kickbacks from the federal courthouse in Albuquerque and that several others pled to lesser offenses. 

They also can tell you the two state treasurers went to prison recently for pocketing money. And then there is the State Investment Council and its bad deals that greatly enriched a few and made the rest of us put off retirement a few more years. 

And then there is former Gov. Bill Richardson, who is reported to have received big campaign donations in exchange for the bad campaign advice. The pay-to-play investigations, suits, countersuits and grand jury proceedings are slowly working their way through the system, but no one has gone to jail and Richardson has remained untouched. 

The allegations did force Richardson to withdraw his nomination as secretary of Commerce, however. So far, there has been much smoke, but no fire. Richardson got himself into some hot water, but contrast that with Illinois, which has had seven governors arrested for corruption since 1850. One is still in prison for attempting to sell the United States Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. 

New Mexico began its statehood efforts in 1850 and it may have been the closest we got for the next 62 years. President Zachary Taylor wanted to make us a state, but he died after a July 4 party. 

New Mexico’s governors were appointed by presidents until 1912. A few of those may have landed in jail for falling under the influence of the Santa Fe Ring. Instead the president removed them from office and sent a replacement. 

This lawlessness surely was among the reasons it took New Mexico so long to become a state. It settled down some in the late 1800s when Edmund G. Ross became the first New Mexican to be appointed territorial governor. 

Ross was a man of principle. He cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in the mid-1860s despite knowing it would cost him reelection to the U.S. Senate. His story was one of John F. Kennedy’s profiles in courage. 

So New Mexico got off to a bad start with its corruption image, but studies compiled in recent years indicate that we aren’t doing so badly in spite the evidence listed above. 

I wrote a column several years ago that cited a study showing New Mexico ranking 19 in corruption among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

John Robertson of the Albuquerque Journal wrote a piece more recently citing a Daily Beast report putting New Mexico at the 45 worst state for public corruption. 

An even more recent report lists New Mexico in 39th place in risk for corruption. It looks at what each state is doing to prevent the corruption. It includes factors such as public access to information, executive, legislative and judicial accountability, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement agencies. 

We did not do well at all but some states must be even worse. Gov. Susana Martinez tried to fix some of these areas but her House Bill 13 didn’t make it out of its first committee this year.