A former high-ranking official at the state Environment Department could be back in front of lawmakers this year as a lobbyist for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
Trais Kliphuis, a past head of the Water Protection Division, registered this week as a lobbyist for the trade organization. Representing a big facet of the state’s economy, the association is an influential force in New Mexico politics and now mostly staffed by veterans of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.
Martinez, a Republican who concluded her two-term tenure this week, said early in her administration that she would bar appointees from lobbying state government within two years of leaving office.
“Public service should be about serving the public — not setting up a future payday,” Martinez told lawmakers in her 2012 State of the State address.
Though she previously served at the pleasure of the administration as chief of the Water Protection Division, Kliphuis worked for the last few years in a civil service position as head of the Office of the Natural Resource Trustee, which is under the Environment Department.
In a phone call on Friday, Kliphuis, now the association’s director of regulatory affairs, said that means she has already gone two years without serving in an exempt position in state government — the sort of cooling off period she said was prescribed by Martinez.
“I care deeply about the environment and the Environment Department,” said Kliphuis, who worked at the agency for about 15 years. “… I’m just not the kind of person who’s going to take advantage.”
Aside from the previous governor’s pledge, the state’s Governmental Conduct Act imposes a one-year ban on former employees representing third parties, such as businesses or advocacy groups, in matters at the agency where they had worked.
However, Kliphuis said that would not preclude her from representing the association in front of the Environment Department. The Office of Natural Resources Trustee is administratively attached to the Environment Department but she contended that it remains a “totally separate agency.”
Either way, the Governmental Conduct Act does not prohibit former state officials from lobbying the Legislature.
Some lawmakers have, in turn, argued for stricter laws on lobbying by civil servants.
State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, argued the Legislature should consider banning lobbying by state officials for some period of time after they leave government.
Steinborn acknowledged that circumstances vary.
“I respect people have the right to make a living,” he said. But he added that the concept of cooling off periods would be particularly important for officials who have worked on regulations for the sectors where they go on to work.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have shot down proposed legislation Steinborn sponsored that would have required lobbyists to report which bills they are advocating for or against and which policy makers they lobbied. Proponents argue such a measure could help legislators and the public identify potential conflicts of interest when former regulators or lawmakers go to work as lobbyists.
“New Mexico continues to have a lot of dark corners where lobbying activity remains in the shadows — where it isn’t clear to New Mexicans what forces are at work pushing legislation,” he said.
Other former Martinez administration officials have landed at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association recently.
In fact, of the six staff members listed on the organization’s website, five worked in the Martinez administration.
Most prominently, former Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn left state government in July 2016 and the association announced less than two months later that he would be its new executive director. But he is not a registered lobbyist for the group.
Critics argued the moves nonetheless revealed a coziness between the Republican governor’s administration and the oil and gas industry.