Earlier this month, William Lang got a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The former state district judge doesn’t normally pick up in such situations, especially when he’s not expecting a call, but for some reason he took this one.
It was Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on the line. She was calling to ask if he would like to head the state’s new ethics commission.
“I joked that there’s a good reason not to pick up the call,” Lang said later in an interview. “We had some laughs. She has a great sense of humor.”
All joking aside, the Albuquerque native said he saw this as a role he couldn’t pass up, given the overwhelming public support to create the commission and the importance of exposing corruption in the state.
“There are a lot of things I would say ‘no’ to, but this is something that matters,” said Lang, who retired as a judge in 2009. “I had a good career, thanks to the courtesy of the state. So this is an opportunity to give back and see to it that this succeeds.”
Establishing the commission wasn’t easy. Good-government groups and some policymakers campaigned for years for a watchdog in a state that has been affected by numerous political scandals. Then, last year, 75 percent of New Mexico voters backed a constitutional amendment to create an ethics commission.
Earlier this year, legislators took notice of that mandate and passed a bill, signed by the governor in late March, to create a seven-member panel to oversee the state’s laws on campaign finance, lobbying, financial disclosure rules and other areas of government conduct.
On Monday, the governor and lawmakers will formally swear in the new commissioners at the state Capitol. After lunch, the commissioners will hold their first meeting.
For some of them, the inauguration of the body has been a long time coming.
Former New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers, who was appointed to the commission earlier this month, was co-chairman of former Gov. Bill Richardson’s Task Force on Ethics Reform more than a decade ago. Stuart Bluestone, a member of the new commission, also was a member of the task force from 2006-07.
That committee had recommended several pieces of legislation — including one that would have created an ethics commission with investigatory responsibilities and subpoena power, as well as an educational component to make sure public officials know basic ethical behavior that’s expected of them in government service.
“Recommendations that myself and others made 10 years ago under Governor Richardson’s administration are finally coming to fruition,” Carruthers, who also was chancellor of New Mexico State University, said in an interview. “It’s time to prove that an ethics commission is in the best interest of New Mexicans.”
A role in prevention
There may be a lot of work to do. New Mexico has seen a series of high-profile corruption scandals involving public officials in recent years, and it remains to be seen whether the new commission will be able to reduce the frequency of such violations.
For example, Republican Dianna Duran resigned as secretary of state in 2015 amid revelations she used campaign funds to support a gambling addiction. That led to her conviction on felony counts of embezzlement and money laundering and a 30-day jail sentence combined with lengthy community service requirements.
Former Democratic Sen. Phil Griego was released on parole this month after 15 months of incarceration. He was convicted of fraud, bribery and ethical violations for using his position as a lawmaker to profit from the sale of a state-owned building in Santa Fe.
Former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla has contested a felony charge of engaging in an official act for personal financial gain. Earlier this month, a state district judge dismissed five of eight counts against her.
“I hope the number of corruption cases diminishes,” said Bluestone, who served as chief deputy attorney general from 1999-2007 and later as chief counsel to the attorney general. “I hope the commission can take a role in ethics education, so people in roles of public responsibility can stop and think more about the potential ramifications of what they are presented with doing.”
Asked if an ethics commission could have helped New Mexico avoid some of the recent cases, Carruthers said, “What would have served us is better ethics education so people understand what is ethical and what isn’t.”
In addition to hearing complaints from the public, the new body is charged with drafting a “proposed code of ethics for public officials and public employees” and submitting that code to “each elected public official and public agency for adoption,” according to the State Ethics Commission Act.
It will be essential to enforce that code of ethics, said Frances Williams of Las Cruces, who was appointed as a commissioner by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen.
“When we have a code, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if public officials don’t sit down, read it and sign that they understand it,” she said.
Williams, who was an official at White Sands Missile Range and currently works as a mediator and instructor in employment law, knows firsthand the challenges of rooting out corruption. When she served on the state housing authority, she exposed corruption at a local housing organization, and the case led to greater protections for whistleblowers.
“This is not a job for a weenie. It’s a job for someone who has huevos,” Williams said. “I think that’s why Senator Papen chose me — she knew I had been a fighter for ethics.”
Two spots to fill
Before commissioners can get to actual ethics complaints, they’ll need to complete a number of key administrative tasks over the next six months.
At the meeting Monday, they plan to discuss the appointment of two more members to round out the seven-body panel, the hiring of an executive director and other items, according to a proposed agenda.
The executive director, once hired, will then need to hire a general counsel and other personnel. There are other logistics to take care of as well, such as finding office space, Lang said.
These tasks need to be completed by the end of the year, and the commission could begin receiving and investigating complaints of alleged ethics violations in January 2020.
“That may be a little ambitious, but that’s what the Legislature wrote,” Lang said. “We have to move efficiently.”
Lang says he will draw on his administrative experience to help get the commission running. His 40-year legal career includes chief judge positions on two different courts.
“The requirement that the chair be a retired judge is certainly a nod by the Legislature and governor that it’s a quasi-judicial administrative authority,” Lang said. “It has to do with how processes work, and that’s what we’re walking into.”
Bluestone also has been making a number of proposals to his fellow commissioners in the lead-up to the swearing-in. He has suggested, for instance, that the commission publish an op-ed to help find qualified and geographically diverse candidates for the remaining two spots on the panel.
Commissioners and watchdog groups say the next six months are also important because the body will be establishing protocols for how it will operate. Good-government groups have been studying rules established by other states’ ethics bodies and hope to make suggestions to the New Mexico commission during the process.
“One of things we’re looking at is how to customize these rules for New Mexico,” said Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch. “What do we need? What isn’t covered in the bill?”
One key set of protocols will determine how the commission shares jurisdictions with other agencies, according to Bluestone. It will need to work closely with the Attorney General’s Office on cases of alleged criminal activity and with the secretary of state on cases relating to financial disclosure, lobbying and government contractors, he said.
“I’m going to suggest that we consider inviting the other key agencies that administer and enforce these laws for a one- or two-day meeting,” Bluestone said.
He also plans to propose that commissioners voluntarily file their own financial disclosure statements, even though he says they technically aren’t required to do so by law.
A transparency divide
There is still disagreement about some clauses in the law. The issue of transparency, which was a major point of debate during the legislative session, remains a sticking point.
Under the final bill, complaints are private until commission staff agree there is probable cause to pursue a case. Thirty days after the target of the case is notified about the finding of probable cause, the matter will become public.
Williams believes cases and hearings should remain closed to the public until the commission determines there is wrongdoing.
“The way the bill is written now, I don’t think it protects privacy,” she said.
On the other hand, some advocacy groups say the law didn’t provide enough transparency.
“There’s a concern that down the road there may be a move to pull back some of that transparency that was hard fought,” Sabo said.
When asked if the state’s recent history of political scandals puts pressure on commissioners to deliver notable cases in their first year, Lang said setting up an entity that works well is more important than making a big splash.
“It’s not news when the planes all land safely,” Lang said. “It’s kind of dull, which is what you want.”
He also said the commission will likely turn out high-profile cases, but it might be more important to the well-being of the state to consistently investigate the more numerous cases involving people who aren’t as well known.
The mere fact that there will now be a body charged with investigating complaints and holding hearings may be enough to dissuade some bad behavior.
“It’s important we recognize if you want people to slow down, you put a stop sign up,” Lang said. “Some people will run the stop sign, but most people will obey it.”