New Mexico’s ongoing problem with government corruption and what can be done to fix it
By Steven Robert Allen
Have you heard this story already? A couple weeks ago, Gov. Bill Richardson announced he wouldn’t be taking the post of U.S. commerce secretary due to a federal investigation into the possible connection between campaign contributions and lucrative state contracts awarded to a California company called CDR. Ever since the story broke, I’ve heard some version of the same question over and over again: Is New Mexico the most corrupt state in the country? Is it in the top three? Are New Mexico politicians all crooks? Why haven’t our elected officials done anything serious to address these scandals?
It’s this last one that really burns me. The truth is New Mexico probably isn’t more corrupt than other states; we’ve just done a much worse job of addressing that corruption. Most of New Mexico’s elected officials are honest, hardworking people who have agreed to work for low, sometimes even nonexistent, wages because they want to do what’s best for our state—including promoting economic development, improving education, increasing access to health care and protecting our fragile environment.
These are no easy tasks, though, and they’re made much more difficult because, unlike almost every other state in the country, New Mexico has never passed comprehensive laws to discourage unethical behavior by public officials. Instead, we’ve waited until massive, hugely embarrassing federal investigations have uncovered scandal after scandal. It’s getting tiring, isn’t it?
Unlike other states, New Mexico has no campaign contribution caps to limit the influence of special interest cashola on the policy making process. We have no independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against public officials. Plus, some of the most important official business at our state capitol is done behind closed doors, because New Mexico is one of just a handful of states that refuses to open conference committees to the public. The result, quite frankly, is a steady stream of humiliating headlines about public officials getting their hands caught in the cookie jar.
The 2009 legislative session started this week and will conclude at high noon on March 21. Legislators such as Sen. Dede Feldman and Rep. Joe Cervantes have been longtime advocates of ethics reform. Incoming legislators such as Sens. Eric Griego and Tim Keller are expected to take up the call as well.
You can and should play a role in this process. It’s easier than you think. This feature is designed to give you some of the knowledge and tools you need to send a message to your representatives that we’ve had enough. I work for Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit advocacy group tackling these issues. If you have any additional questions about how to get involved, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (505) 323-6399, and check out our website at commoncause.org/nm for updates on these issues throughout the session.
Changing the Rules of the Game
Three bills that would help curb the culture of corruption in New Mexico
Campaign Contribution Limits
New Mexico is one of only five states that place no limits on the contributions that can be given to candidates, political action committees and political parties. Illinois, home of Rod “Senate Seat for Sale” Blagojevich, is one of the others.
More and more money has been flooding into New Mexico political campaigns in recent years. It’s not uncommon for CDR-style contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars to get handed over to political committees controlled by New Mexico public officials. Are these excessive contributions traded in exchange for access and special favors? There’s rarely an explicit quid pro quo, but let’s get real. We’re delusional if we think these contributions don’t at least buy an open door and cozy treatment in the halls of power.
Independent Ethics Commission
New Mexico is also one of only 10 states in the country with no independent state ethics commission. Why do we need an ethics commission? Well, the idea is to create a fully bipartisan body made up of people appointed by the governor, the New Mexico Supreme Court’s chief justice, and majority and minority leaders in the Legislature. The commission would ideally have the resources to field and investigate complaints regarding possible ethics violations by public officials in the state. In other states, such commissions have done impressive jobs in revealing and punishing government corruption.
Needless to say, many public officials hate this idea, partly because it creates additional scrutiny regarding their official activities. Many also fear that the commission could be used to mount unfair partisan attacks. To address this particular problem, existing models contain mechanisms to ensure that complaints against public officials remain confidential until the commission determines that there’s some validity to the accusations.
New Mexico needs to address complaints about unethical behavior by public officials before such cases blow up into full criminal prosecutions at the federal or state level. Our state attorney general, Gary King, is supportive of this reform because he understands that the commission would complement rather than undermine his criminal investigations. Ideally, this legislation would include a whistle-blower protection provision, another reform desperately needed in our state. Finally, the commission could also serve an educational function, allowing public officials to request confidential advisory opinions to determine whether a certain type of behavior is ethical.
Public Campaign Financing
The ultimate answer to the problem of excessive private money corrupting politics can only be answered by removing as much of that money as possible from the process. New Mexico has made small-scale advances on this front by creating voluntary public financing systems for certain offices, such as the Public Regulation Commission and appellate judges. Voters in Albuquerque in 2005 and in Santa Fe in 2008 also approved the implementation of such systems for municipal races.
Here’s the way it works. Candidates who would like to receive public financing for their campaigns agree to collect a certain number of very small qualifying contributions, as low as $5 each, from voters registered in the districts where the candidates are running for office. This requirement is designed to ensure candidates have enough local support to deserve public funding. Once these contributions are certified, the participating candidates receive a block grant to run their campaign, and they agree to not gather additional private contributions of any kind.
Such systems have been in place in Arizona and Maine for about a decade, and they’ve been enormously successful. Voters in these states don’t have to worry nearly as much about their public officials being bribed into taking certain actions that might not be in the the best interests of ordinary citizens.
With New Mexico facing a fairly severe budget crunch this year, expanding public financing to costly, high profile offices such as governor, attorney general and secretary of state will be tough. Yet there’s reason to believe that expanding public campaign financing will ultimately save our state money because public officials will no longer feel the need to shovel out pork dollars to favored campaign contributors. There will be an incentive to be efficient and look out for taxpayers’ interests rather than the interests of well-heeled campaign contributors.
Other Important Reforms to Consider
Pay to Play
A so-called pay-to-play law went into effect in Illinois on Jan. 1 of this year. This law requires that businesses with more than $50,000 in annual contracts with the state register with the Illinois Board of Elections. Such businesses are now completely prohibited from giving campaign contributions to public officials or candidates with decision-making power over these contracts.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Much of the black comedy surrounding the Blagojevich scandal occurred because the new law was passed in September of last year over the funky-haired guv’s veto of the bill. It’s been alleged that much of Blagojevich’s most heinous behavior occurred during the three-month gap between the law’s passing and when it went into effect. That’s because the guv seems to have been under the impression that his outrageous behavior was legal before the new pay-to-play law passed. (He might be right about that. We’ll see.)
Regardless, we clearly need something similar in New Mexico. This reform would have made it impossible for questions to arise regarding the link between CDR’s campaign contributions to Richardson’s political action committees and contracts awarded to CDR by New Mexico because those campaign contributions wouldn’t have been made in the first place. We should also consider banning all campaign contributions from lobbyists, as they do in states like Connecticut.
A handful of legislators, meeting in secret, can change bills in fundamental ways.
Open Conference Committees
Conference committees are hugely powerful legislative committees appointed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives to resolve disagreements on legislation. The vast majority of states have open conference committees, meaning the public can observe the negotiations that occur as differences between Senate and House versions of a bill are worked out.
Unfortunately, New Mexico doesn’t have open public access to these committees. That means a handful of legislators, meeting in secret, can change bills in fundamental ways and no one outside the closed-door committee will know anything about it until it’s too late.
As Rep. Cervantes has said, not only is the public being shut out of the process, but other lawmakers are as well. Sadly, this is how the legislative budget is typically finalized, with just a few legislative leaders working out the details in a private session. This is simply not acceptable.
He saw maintenance workers taking down video cameras from the Senate gallery. The reason? The budget crunch.
This should be part of the ethics commission bill, but it could be passed independently as well. Either way, if we’re serious about rooting out corruption in New Mexico, this is an essential reform.
Web-Streaming the Legislature
New Mexico is one of only three states that doesn't broadcast any legislative proceedings whatsoever. In a better world, there would be cameras in both legislative chambers and in every committee room at the Roundhouse so people from around the state could follow legislative proceedings on the Internet during the session and throughout the year. Video of these proceedings could be archived permanently on New Mexico’s legislative website.
It looked for a while as though our state Senate might finally get this done, but Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell recently reported on his blog that he saw maintenance workers taking down video cameras from the Senate gallery. The reason? Senate leaders blame the state’s budget crunch. But why remove the cameras once they had already been installed? Are we seriously supposed to believe that the cameras are going to be sold at a pawn shop to make an extra couple bucks for the state? Please.
Pay Our Legislators
Not too many people know this: One of the reasons it’s easy for New Mexico legislators to justify being wined and dined by lobbyists and various special interests is because we don’t pay our state senators and representatives. This also means most of our legislators tend to be retired, wealthy or have those rare jobs where they can take off for a month or two every winter and not get canned. (Where do I sign up for one of those?) It’s time to professionalize our Legislature by giving these folks a decent living wage. It’s better for our legislators to be paid with tax dollars than to get paid by private interests with an agenda that might be at odds with the greater public good.
Online Campaign Reporting
New Mexico has had online campaign reporting for years now, but it’s never really worked out that well. The Secretary of State’s Office says it’s working on a new system that will post reports in a more timely fashion and also be more user friendly. It says it will have a new interface ready to be tested by legislators, reporters and advocates during this legislative session. Let’s hope that’s the case, because this is an essential tool for shedding light on potential connections between campaign contributions and policy making in our state.
New Mexico’s Ethical Dilemmas
Here’s a fun sampling of some of New Mexico’s most noteworthy corruption scandals in recent years
Our Embattled Guv
This one’s fresh in the mind. President Obama tapped our governor to become the new U.S. secretary of commerce, but Richardson was forced to withdraw his name from consideration. He says he was concerned about confirmation delays that might be caused by an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that a California company called CDR Financial Products gave more than $100,000 in contributions to two of the governor’s political action committees in exchange for state contracts worth more than $1.4 million. Richardson, along with several of his friends and advisers, has retained legal counsel, but so far no indictments have come down in the case.
Our governor got more bad news last week when Frank Foy, a former investment officer at the state’s Education Retirement Board (ERB), alleged he was forced into making bad investments for the state with companies that gave campaign contributions to Richardson. Foy says such bad investments cost New Mexico almost $90 million. The governor’s office says Foy is just a disgruntled former state employee who was accused of misconduct while on the job.
The Manny Gang
Former New Mexico Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon was one of the most powerful politicians in our state’s history. Unfortunately, he capped off a cantankerous 29-year career in our state Legislature with an October 2008 guilty plea, admitting to three counts of conspiracy and mail fraud. Aragon and several others—including former Albuquerque mayor and lobbyist Ken Schultz—dreamed up a kickback scheme that defrauded New Mexico out of $4.2 million. All the major players in the scheme have pled guilty. Aragon is awaiting sentencing.
Free Housing for the Well-Connected
The Albuquerque-based Region III Housing Authority was set up to supply affordable housing to low-income families. A couple years ago, the authority defaulted on $5 million in bonds it owed the state. We now know that a lot of these funds were going to everything but housing for the poor.
Region III Director Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos is a former legislator and lobbyist who’s a close friend of Speaker of the House Ben Lujan. As director, “Smiley” received almost $600,000 in salary and benefits. Another $300,000 went to a private company owned by Gallegos as a loan to purchase more than 30 lots that had already been bought by the authority at an earlier date.
Many homes were apparently sold in sweetheart deals to people who weren’t low income but who had friendly relations with bigwigs at the authority. In 2006, reports came out that both a Bernalillo County metro judge and Speaker Lujan's secretary were living rent-free in homes owned by the authority. (Both have since been ordered to pay back-rent.)
The state auditor’s office released an audit of the state’s regional housing authority system last week. The Attorney General’s Office says it plans to take the long-simmering investigation to a grand jury early in February.
Where Did All the Money Go?
The New Mexico attorney general is investigating former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron over the possible misappropriation of voter education funds supplied to New Mexico under the federal Help America Vote Act. When Vigil-Giron was secretary of state, her office gave a private firm $6.3 million to develop an advertising campaign. A federal audit recently revealed that $3 million of that money has never been accounted for.
This is the granddaddy of the slew of corruption scandals our state has endured in recent years. Two New Mexico state treasurers, Michael Montoya and Richard Vigil, are currently serving separate three-year-plus terms in federal prison in connection with extortion schemes in which they received millions of dollars in kickbacks from brokers and investment advisers. Montoya tried to explain his behavior by saying he was simply trying to pay off fat campaign debts.
FAQs for Those Who Want to Lobby for Ethics Reform During the 2009 Legislative Session
Anyone can do it. All you need is a smattering of know-how and a fair amount of courage. Much of the information you’ll need to get started is on the New Mexico Legislature’s website at nmlegis.gov.
When is the 2009 legislative session?
It started on Jan. 20 and will run through March 21. This is not a long time, and the state is facing a severe budget crunch that will take up a lot of legislators’ time and energy. Ethics reform needs to be a top priority, though, and you can help make it so.
Who are my state senator and representative?
The legislators with the most interest in what you have to say are the ones who actually represent you in Santa Fe. But who are these people? There are two ways to figure this out. First, go to the New Mexico Legislature’s website (nmlegis.gov). (Note: At press time, the website had not yet been updated to include newly elected members.)
If you have a voter card from the Secretary of State’s Office, you’ll see a box labeled “State Senate District” and another labeled “State Representative District.” You can use the numbers in these boxes to identify your legislators by clicking the “Members” tab on the left margin of the website, then clicking on “Districts.”
You can also click on the “Members” tab, then “Find Your Legislator” followed by “Search by Name, District or Zip Code.” This will get you to a page that allows you to search for your legislators using your zip code. Keep in mind that if you live in a densely populated area of the state, you will probably need to know the “plus four” digits. (Just look at a recent utility bill.)
How do I get their contact information?
Once your legislators’ names come up on the website, just click on them and you’ll get a lovely photo along with contact information, committee memberships and links to legislation they’re sponsoring.
What’s the best way to approach a state legislator?
Very carefully and with a giant stick. Just kidding. Sort of. Look, they’re just people, with a wide range of personalities and social styles. Write e-mails and letters to them. Call them on the phone. If you have time, try to visit them in person. Some legislators genuinely enjoy mixing with their constituents. Some will be terrified or even hostile toward you. Just be polite and respectful, and tell them what you honestly think about government corruption and ethics reform in New Mexico.
How can I get updates on ethics reform legislation during the session?
Write to your local newspaper. Call your favorite radio station. Definitely call the governor’s office at (505) 476-2200 and tell his staff that he needs to aggressively support this legislation. Write him letters at Office of the Governor, 490 Old Santa Fe Trail, Room 400, Santa Fe, N.M. 87501. Go to Richardson’s website at governor.state.nm.us and send him an e-mail.
Most importantly, connect with like-minded people by talking to your friends about these issues and getting involved together. The old cliché is true: There’s power in numbers. You can also get involved with Common Cause New Mexico by calling (505) 323-6399 or going to commoncause.org/nm. At the website on the left-hand column, you’ll see a window where you can sign up for e-mail alerts about efforts to get these reforms passed.
Steven Robert Allen is the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and the former editor of the Alibi.