As retired judge Sandra Price watched the state House of Representatives debate a bill that would allow people to sue government agencies over civil rights violations, one particular moment grabbed her attention.
It was when Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, rose to ask the bill’s sponsors — House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque — to accept a substitute bill.
The amended legislation would have required any lawmakers who work as attorneys to agree not to represent clients in complaints that might fall under the proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act.
Lane, Louis and Egolf are all attorneys.
Just days before Tuesday’s debate on the House floor, Price had filed a complaint against Egolf with the State Ethics Commission, claiming he stands to benefit if the bill is passed into law. She argued he should have disclosed that at least 20 percent of his business concerns civil rights litigation.
Watching Lane — an attorney who, Price said, knew nothing about her claim — argue the point on the chamber floor made her “almost fall out of my chair.”
“It made me feel good that I wasn’t the only one to see this. I felt it was a conflict that he [Egolf] was preparing the bill, that he had sponsored that bill, argued on the bill, voted on the bill.”
In a written statement Wednesday, Egolf, whose Santa Fe law firm handles civil rights cases, among a variety of other cases, said the retired judge’s complaint is “baseless and clearly designed to distract me from my work and to discourage me from fighting for the people of New Mexico.”
He said he would not comment on the ethics complaint because it was pending and directed inquiries to Albuquerque attorney Andrew Schultz and retired judge Linda Vanzi of the Rodey Law Firm, “who are preparing my response to the complaint.”
Speaking by phone, Schultz said that with New Mexico’s Legislature made up of unpaid volunteers, it is “essential that people of all professions be able to serve without being accused of anything they do coming back to haunt them.”
He said a businessperson who is a legislator may vote on a tax measure “that could later have an impact on their business.”
“The idea that simply because you are a lawyer disqualifies you on matters of public importance is foolish and is not the intent or the letter of New Mexico ethics laws.”
House Bill 4, which would create the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, would allow residents to file complaints in state District Courts against government agencies over violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights. Currently, such cases are generally filed in federal courts, citing violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Should the plaintiffs win a case filed under the law, their attorneys’ fees would be covered.
In her complaint, Price said the bill, if it becomes law, will “clearly and unequivocally benefit the private practice of Speaker Egolf.”
Price, who is a Democrat, said her actions have nothing to do with party politics. She said she wants Egolf and other legislators to be “conscious about how things appear.”
“If it [the complaint] causes him to scrutinize what bills he is passing, voting on, arguing, that’s what I want,” Price said.
Schultz said one section of the law Price cites in her complaint applies to public officials and employees but excludes legislators, so it would not apply to Egolf.
Price said, “I read that statute to mean it applies to public officials, and I believe legislators are public officials.”
Schultz said he was preparing a response to Price’s complaint and planned to ask the commission to dismiss it.
Lane, a freshman lawmaker, argued Tuesday on the House floor it could be a conflict of interest for any legislator who is an attorney to support the bill and then later file claim under the act on behalf of a client.
Louis countered that Lane’s proposed substitute bill could affect almost every member of the Legislature, where members hold jobs in a variety of professions — doctor, educator, rancher — and often encounter bills that involve their line of work.
“It’s not just lawyers in the Legislature; it’s every single profession,” Louis said.
Ultimately, House members voted 44-24 to table Lane’s motion, mostly along party lines, with Democrats opposing it. Then the House voted 39-29 — with some Democrats joining Republicans in opposing the legislation — to approve HB 4.
The legislation now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Speaking by phone Wednesday night, Lane said he knew nothing of Price’s complaint until she called him after Tuesday’s debate to tell him she had filed it.
This is not the first time conflict-of-interest concerns have come up in the state’s “citizen Legislature,” in which members are not paid and most have full-time jobs. Some lawmakers are married to lobbyists or vote and sponsor legislation that might support an industry in which they have a personal business interest.
In an interview with The New Mexican about possible conflicts of interest during the 2020 legislative session, Egolf asked, “Should there be no lawyers in the Legislature?”
The State Ethics Commission, launched in January 2020, is tasked with overseeing the state’s laws on campaign finance, lobbying, financial disclosures and other aspects of public officials’ conduct.
Price said the commission acknowledged her complaint Feb. 11.
Efforts to reach a representative of the commission late Wednesday were unsuccessful.