Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NM Ethics Agency seeks expanded staff, jurisdiction

Copyright © 2021

SANTA FE – The state ethics committee will urge lawmakers over the next year to significantly increase their staff to ensure that the agency can fulfill its role as an independent watchdog.

The agency also agreed on Friday to ask lawmakers to extend its jurisdiction to those parts of the state constitution that prohibit profitability from public office and prohibit lawmakers from entering into contracts approved by laws passed during their tenure .

The inquiries come after the indictment of former Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat, who stepped down on a criminal investigation earlier this year.

The allegations against them include extortion, solicitation or receipt of bribes, and unlawful interest in a public contract. Stapleton protests her innocence through her lawyer and has vowed to wash her name clean.

However, the commission’s request for extended jurisdiction has no connection with the Stapleton investigation, which became public after the request was prepared, said Jeremy Farris, the commission’s executive director.

In an interview, he said the constitutional provisions in question simply fit the core mandate and expertise of the state ethics committee.

The commission itself is relatively new and was voted in by voters in 2018.

The agency is filing for $ 1.28 million budget approval next year – a 40% increase over what the agency received this year.

It would be enough to increase the workforce from five to nine employees.

The agency had to accept a budget cut of 5% this year, and – even without the additional constitutional competence – the legislature expanded the agency’s tasks and instructed it to do the enforcement in connection with notaries.

“We desperately need more staff to run this agency,” Farris said during a commission meeting on Friday. “It doesn’t work with five.”

The additional money would cover the hiring of a lawyer, paralegal and database administrator, as well as the restoration of a special project coordinator whose funding was previously cut.

“I think it’s a very sensible and prudent proposal,” said Stuart Bluestone, a Santa Fe attorney and a member of the state ethics committee.

The main tasks of the commission now include assessing complaints accusing civil servants and others of ethical violations; Prosecuting ethics law enforcement in court; and providing expert opinions and training public officials.

The agency sued a political committee last year and reached settlements requiring public disclosure of campaign expenses and donations.

The expanded competence, if approved, would give the Commission powers over constitutional provisions prohibiting:

• Increased remuneration for public officials during their tenure.

• Legislators who have an interest in state or municipal contracts that were legally approved during their term in office or for a year thereafter.

• Government employees who already receive a salary from the use of external fees or otherwise benefit from their work in public office.

New Mexico lawmakers will begin a 30-day session on January 18, part of which will be devoted to drafting a budget package for the coming year.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, has also urged state lawmakers to tighten the state’s public corruption laws.

The state ethics committee is a seven-member, non-partisan group created by a 2018 constitutional amendment.

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