Why NM needs an independent ethics commission

Last Thursday, the US Senate Select Committee on Ethics issued its “Public Letter of Qualified Admonition” to Senator Domenici for pressuring then US Attorney David Iglesias to move quickly on the Bernalillo County courthouse scandal.

It’s worth noting that this same committee issued the exact same type of letter – the “Public Letter of Qualified Admonition” — to Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, for his misconduct in a public restroom last summer.

I wonder – can a legislative body police itself effectively? It’s an honest question, and one that is in play as the New Mexico legislature struggles with the question of whether to constitute an independent ethics commission to handle alleged ethics violations of its members. So far, the Legislature has failed to pass this ethics proposal.

The US Senate’s issuance of these two letters proves that at minimum, the body is capable of raising strong questions about the actions of its members. On the other hand, there is a legitimate argument to be made that the “Admonition” letters do not do justice to the actions they attempted to address.

The New Mexico Legislature actually has a similar, in-house ethics body. It’s called the “Interim Legislative Ethics Committee” and it “convenes only upon the receipt of a complaint or a request for an advisory opinion.” A quick check of the state’s website reveals no previous agendas or previous minutes posted for this committee. I’ve only been in New Mexico for 13 years but I talked to a lot of folks during the past two legislative sessions about this Interim Ethics Committee. No one could recall this committee taking up a serious ethics issue in recent history.

However, those with really long memories remember the case of State Representative Ron Olguin.

Way back in 1992, Olguin was “censured” by the House of Representatives after he was accused of soliciting a $15,000 fee in late 1991 to use his legislative influence to obtain an appropriation from the Legislature. Veteran Roundhouse observers recall the intense anguish experienced by Olguin’s fellow House members as they wrestled with the question of admonishing one of their own. Subsequently, Olguin was convicted in District Court of bribery and attempted fraud and sentenced to one year in prison.

What can we learn from that lone historical example?

The Olguin matter serves to underscore the fundamental flaw in the current system. Indeed, are we to believe that since 1992 not one member of the Legislature has had a conflict of interest or used influence inappropriately? Must questions of misconduct rise to the level of a state or federal indictment and prosecution before they are addressed?

Consider the case of former Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, who currently awaits trial on corruption charges in the courthouse construction scandal. He, of course, will have his day in court. But given the seriousness of the charges, and the testimony already in the record that suggests this was the manner in which he routinely conducted legislative business, how is it that no one stepped forward to file a prior ethics complaint? The conclusion is obvious: Given Aragon’s immense power, his colleagues would never sit in judgment against him for fear of retribution. So why bother?

And herein, lies the remarkable irony that takes us full circle. It was the Aragon case that entangled Domenici in his own ethical misconduct in the first place. Wouldn’t the public interest have been better served if the the questions of Aragon’s alleged infractions come to light earlier and aired in an appropriate state venue — before the the feds had to step in? And it’s worth noting that the federal investigation only started after Manny moved on from the Senate to ascend to the presidency of Highlands University.

That’s why we need an independent state ethics commission. It’s hard to imagine other situations where an entity gets to police itself. Big corporations don’t regulate themselves. A strong dose of checks and balances might be just what the doctor ordered.

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