I was shocked. I remember saying to my bosses, `Is this really all our legislators need to do on this?’ - former legislative attorney
New Mexico Ethics Watch to Push for Enforcement
Woefully Weak Laws Lack Enforcement
UPDATED WITH LOPEZ COMMENT
BY TOM SHARPE
Sen. Linda Lopez signed and dated three years of financial disclosure forms, but wrote “N/A” in the spaces asking for her sources of income.
Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat who owns a consulting firm, “basically signed an empty form,” according to a recent report by a new government ethics watchdog.
“She declared no income, no retirement, no support, no contract income, no per diems. Nothing,” according to the report by the fledgling New Mexico Ethics Watch.
Nevertheless, the office of the New Mexico secretary of state filed away the form without noting a problem – apparently because no one bothered to read them.
Welcome to governmental ethics in New Mexico, where the few laws that exist to compel financial disclosure by public officials have almost no enforcement.
Lopez, who returned a reporter’s phone call after the deadline for the print version of this story, said she has never made more than $5,000 a year from a single source in the years covered by her reports. She chairs the Senate Rules Committee where ethics legislation has died in recent years. But hers isn’t the only faulty financial-disclosure form highlighted in the New Mexico Ethics Watch investigation.
Former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla’s 2016 form avoided mentioning her husband Jessie Medina’s consulting clients. Those clients may figure in a New Mexico attorney general’s criminal investigation that led to Padilla’s resignation.
Another example: M. Jay Mitchell, secretary of New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Services, was found to have no financial disclosure form on file for 2016. But in an interview, he said he had filed one last January, as required, and no one notified him that it was missing. He emailed copies of his 2016 and 2017 financial disclosures to this reporter.
In other cases, elected or appointed officials wrote that they or their spouses have many clients, without naming them. Some neglected to sign the forms or submitted forms identical to forms they submitted in previous years. A few handwritten forms were illegible. Some lacked a date stamp.
All that helps to explain a 2016 survey by the Center for Public Integrity that gave New Mexico a D-minus grade for corruption. Idaho was one of the few states ranked even lower.
New Mexico Ethics Watch released its first report, “Learning to Walk: New Mexico’s Anemic Financial Disclosure Regimen,” at a cocktail party Jan. 12 at the Blue Corn Café in Santa Fe.
The group is largely funded by the Thornburg Foundation, the nonprofit wing of the Santa Fe-based financial management firm. Ethics Watch is operating under the New Mexico Community Foundation while it seeks its own nonprofit tax status.
The board of directors is chaired by Richard Bosson, who retired last year after 14 years as a justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court. Also on the board are Vic Bruno, an Albuquerque commercial Realtor; Phil Davis, an Albuquerque lawyer; Daniel Yohalem, a Santa Fe lawyer; Al Green, an Albuquerque lawyer; and Joleen Youngers, a Las Cruces lawyer.
Board members hope the group will work with the news media and the public to identify problems and “name names” of offenders.
Ethics Watch’s only full-time employee is Executive Director Douglas Carver, who for five years served as a staff attorney for the Legislative Council Service, where he first became aware of how “thin” the financial-disclosure requirements were.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I remember saying to my bosses, `Is this really all our legislators need to do on this?’”
For example, the Financial Disclosure Act asks for income sources of more than $5,000 a year with no larger categories. That means $5,001 is treated the same as $50,000. It also requires disclosure of business interests of $10,000 or more, with no upper categories, and a “general description” of land holdings in New Mexico, excluding one’s residence. Spouses are subject to financial disclosures but not other family members.
Even more important than new legislation is getting the Office of the Secretary of State’s Office, where disclosure reports are filed, to review the forms for errors and omissions and to demand compliance with the existing law.
Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran quit posting the completed forms on her office website before she resigned in disgrace over her own ethics scandal in 2015.
The lack of online financial-disclosure data means journalists and other researchers must make written requests under the Inspection of Public Records Request Act for each document they seek.
Tom Sharpe is a freelance journalist who lives in Santa Fe.