Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is Ethics Commission Bill Constitutional?

A representative of Governor Bill Richardson said a bill establishing a states ethics commission — unanimously endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Saturday — contains a section that is unconstitutional.

Jim Noel, a state lawyer working for the governor during the session, said Senate Bill 43 would “unconstitutionally silence the voice of complainants.” Under the bill, someone filing a complaint about a state official would have to sign a confidentiality agreement that would not allow him to talk about the case until the ethics commission made a decision.

Violating the confidentiality agreement could mean a complainant could face a $25,000 civil fine and a jail sentence of one year. Noel pointed out that this means the complainant could face worse penalties than a corrupt official.

Noel is a past executive director of the state Judicial Standards Commission and is married to Richardson's former political director Amanda Cooper.

Bill sponsor Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said the confidentiality agreement does not violate the complainant’s First Amendment rights. “He could hold a press conference right before he files the complaint,” she said.

Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, said he didn’t like a section of the bill that said the ethics commission couldn’t act on any complaint during election season — which is from the primary filing day in March of an election year until the November general election.

This might conceal wrongdoing about an elected official or candidate that voters should know before an election, Ryan said.

Lopez said the blackout period is necessary to avoid “witch hunts” during an election.
Though Ryan voted for the bill, he said he might file an amendment dealing with the “blackout” period.

The commission would consist of seven members — two appointed by the governor, four by the Legislature and one appointed by the chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The governor’s appointees would have to be two Democrats and two Republicans — except if the governor belonged to neither major party.

The bill goes to the Senate Finance Committee because it calls for a $200,000 appropriation for an executive director and other expenses.

Noel said the governor prefers House Bill 125, sponsored by Rep. Brian Egolf. However, that bill has not gotten out of the House Judiciary Committee.

UPDATE: Sen. Peter Wirth just notified me that I had the number of commission members in the current version of the bill incorrect in the original version this post. It's been corrected.