- Associated Press
Monday, February 11, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A detailed blueprint emerged Monday for the creation of New Mexico’s independent ethics commission to evaluate complaints about the conduct of elected officials, public employees, lobbyists and others.

In November 2018 elections, voters across the state approved a constitutional amendment to create the seven-member commission in the wake of a series of high-profile corruption scandals. The amendment left many details of the new agency up to future legislation.

A bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales sets out lengthy provisions for the new agency’s responsibilities, the hiring of an executive director and initial procedures for dismissing frivolous or unfounded allegations - and whether those charges are ever made public.

Ely said the bill is a work in progress that aims to encourage people to file ethics complaints when they suspect violations as well as offer due process protections for those accused of ethical lapses. The bill has been assigned to a committee for its first hearing.

State lawmakers have repeatedly expressed unease that the ethics commission might become a forum for unfounded, politically motivated allegations.

Under the new bill, a hearing panel would make the initial determination about ethics allegations are unfounded.

“The commission shall not make public complaints that have been dismissed and the reason for that dismissal, unless requested by the respondent or complainant,” the bill says.

Ely said the commission would not prevent accusers or the accused from speaking publicly on allegations.

The accountability watchdog group New Mexico Common Cause offered tempered praise for the bill, in a news release.

“It will go a long way to ensure accountability and restore the public’s trust in state government,” said Heather Ferguson, the group’s executive director.

The new commission would have the authority to issue subpoenas and civil penalties, while referring allegations of criminal conduct to local or state prosecutors.

Recent prominent corruption cases in New Mexico include the jailing of Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego last year on convictions for fraud, bribery, perjury, embezzlement and felony ethical violations after using his position as a lawmaker to profit from the sale of a state-owned building in Santa Fe.

Republican Dianna Duran resigned as secretary of state in 2015 amid revelations she used campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction. That led to her conviction on felony counts of embezzlement and money laundering. And former taxation secretary Demesia Padilla is confronting charges of embezzlement and accusations of using a position in government for personal gain. Padilla maintains her innocence as the case moves toward trial.

Under the recent constitutional amendment, the commission will include one gubernatorial appointee, four members picked by top legislative leaders from the two major parties, and two additional members selected by already appointed commissioners. No more than three of the commissioners can be from one party - setting aside at least one seat for an independent or third-party official.

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