Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Good Government Groups Against Ethics Commission Bills

Bills that would establish a state ethics commission are being opposed — at least in their current form — by several organizations. some of which for years have advocated an ethics commission.

Senate Bill 43 is awaiting action by the full Senate. That’s also the case in the House for the similar House Bill 43.

Sarah Welsh, director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said in a written statement that most of the groups support “an independent, bipartisan commission to field and investigate ethics complaints against public officials, as well as to serve in an advisory capacity on all issues related to ethics in government.”

But the confidentially requirements in the bills are too strict and fly in the face of the state’s “sunshine” laws, which “start from the presumption that government must be open by default, with any secrecy provisions carved out as narrowly as possible,”

Welsh noted that under the bills, “a private citizen who files an ethics complaint and then decides to talk about it publicly could face penalties of up to $26,000 and a year in jail. Ironically, a public official, public employee or lobbyist found to have actually committed an ethics violation in betrayal of the public trust would only receive a public reprimand from the ethics commission.”

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsor of the Senate bill, told me Saturday that such confidentiality requirements are necessary to protect the reputation of officials and candidates.

Said Welsh on Tuesday, “Although confidentiality for the commission’s initial investigation and deliberations might make sense, these bills require that nearly all commission meetings, the entire hearing process and almost all documents collected and generated by the commission remain outside public view forever. The only documents that would be required to be released by this commission are advisory opinions, the final reports on investigations that result in a guilty finding and an annual report.”

On Saturday, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jim Noel, representing Gov. Bill Richardson's office, questioned whether the confidentiality provisions in the bill were constitutional.

Besides NMFOG other groups opposing the bills include, Common Cause New Mexico, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, American Association of Retired Persons and the League of Women Voters of New Mexico.