Manny and Ethics Reform: A case of bipartisan denial

The year 2008 could signal the passing of a political era in New Mexico. But the Old Guard in the legislative leadership of both parties may not see it that way.

This was the week that saw former State Senate chieftain Manny Aragon plead guilty to federal felony charges for taking $626,000 in kickbacks in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse scandal.

Hard-edged editorials ran today in two of New Mexico’s largest daily newspapers. And the drumbeat for ethics reform just got a little louder.

In one, the Albuquerque Journal called the current leaders of the legislature to account:

Do You Think We Need Ethics Reform Now?

For years, a powerful few in New Mexico have been asking “why?” As in, “Why do we need ethics reform? Why do we need limits on what lawmakers can get? Why do we need transparent mechanisms for public officials to report the money and gifts they collect? Why do we need an independent commission with subpoena power that can help ensure people entrusted with taxpayer money play by the rules?”

Yes, Manny may be gone, but the system lives on. Denial is the Old Guard’s first line of defense.

Start with Senate Democratic Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who had this to say in an Albuquerque Journal interview in February of last year:

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said the pressure to reform the Legislature is misplaced because lawmakers have done nothing wrong.

“The reason that people are mentioning the ethics issue is because of one man who is not a member of the Legislature,” Sanchez said.

The Belen Democrat was referring to former state Treasurer Robert Vigil who was convicted last year on one count of attempted extortion. A jury acquitted him on 23 other criminal charges.

“What did the Legislature do to warrant the push for the change?” Sanchez asked. “Give me something factually that we’ve done to warrant all the changes that have been proposed.”

Now with the Aragon conviction, one wonders if Sanchez will continue with his “everything is hunky-dory in the state senate thank you very much” attitude. One also wonders just how blind Sanchez really was to the way the institution was run when he served under Aragon’s leadership for all those many years.

Make no mistake. The denial is bipartisan. When Aragon’s guilty plea was announced, Senate Republican floor leader Stuart Ingle (R-Portales) dismissed the efficacy of new ethics laws in an interview with the AP:

Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, who was elected in 1984, said the Legislature will weather the bad publicity and public disapproval that’s likely to result from Aragon’s misconduct…

Ingle said there will be renewed pressure in the Legislature for ethics measures because of Aragon’s guilty plea. But Ingle questioned whether more laws were necessary.

“I think the public knows that ethics is something that is done on an individual basis. You can have all the laws in the world and somebody wants to be unethical, well, that’s what they’re going to do. There were laws against what Sen. Aragon did,” said Ingle.

Yes Senator, there were laws against what Sen. Aragon did. But the argument being made is that the Senate can police its own ethics.  Yet the Senate did nothing.

The Las Cruces Sun-News matched the Journal with another scathing editorial. Editor Walt Rubel focused his righteous ire squarely on the state senate:

Will senator’s conviction kick-start ethics reform?

Will the criminal conviction of their recent leader convince members of the New Mexico Senate of the need for comprehensive ethics reform?

… The Vigil and Montoya arrests in 2005 sparked a call by Gov. Bill Richardson and some in the Legislature to upgrade the state’s woefully inadequate public ethics laws. The House responded with a comprehensive package that included campaign finance limits, creation of an independent commission to investigate ethics complaints, public financing for some races and opening conference committees to the public.

The Senate not only defeated those bills, but also seemed to mock their very existence by passing an amendment introduced by Senate Minority Whip Lee Rawson (R-Las Cruces) to make the year 3008 the effective date of legislation for campaign finance reform.

Yes, the public gets it, even if the dead-enders of the senate old guard do not.

The year 2008 also produced the exit from the scene of five-term State Senator Shannon Robinson, Aragon’s closest Senate ally and practitioner of the same free-booting legislative style. The Albuquerque Journal ran a series in February exposing one example of how Robinson, the Chairman of the Corporations Committee, had used his political clout to reroute education appropriations to pay for the expenses of his rugby club.

A bitter opponent of ethics reform, Robinson was soundly repudiated in his re-election bid in the June Democratic Primary.

All of this presses home the persistent question: “Can the legislature police its own ethics?” Or will we have to continue to rely upon the federal government and its Justice Department more interested in picking off the political targets of the state’s senior U.S. Senator?

But the alternative appears just as dubious. Can the prosecution arms of state government be counted on to act impartially when their agency budgets face retribution from powerful legislators?

The need for an independent, nonpartisan state ethics commission has never been more urgent.

Special interest campaign contributions lubricate the system. Special interest lobbyists are effectively the third house of the legislature.

Public financing of campaigns can curb the rule of powerful corporate interests and put the voters back in charge.

One of the additional virtues of public financing is the intensified scrutiny that it brings to campaign expenditures — as the travails of PRC candidate Jerome Block have so amply demonstrated.

But nowhere is the undue influence of special interest money more obvious than at the State Land Office, where Land Commissioner Pat Lyons has perfected the system of pay-to-play system.

Will the call for ethics reform once again go unheeded at the next legislative session?

One thing that is certain. Nothing concentrates the mind of a politician than an aroused, informed and educated public. That, dear friends, is the most essential ingredient for moving the cause of reform forward.

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