A New Mexico government watchdog group says the state’s law on financial disclosure reporting is lax and confusing and leads to a lack of transparency that makes it difficult to accurately track the financial activities of candidates.
“Lawmakers today would be embarrassed to pass a law this weak,” Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said of the Financial Disclosure Act, which has provisions dating back to 1993.
She presented a report on the group’s findings during a public meeting Friday of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission, charged with overseeing compliance with state laws on campaign finances, lobbying, financial disclosures and other aspects of public officials’ conduct.
Among other reporting gaps she’s found, Sabo said, financial disclosure forms for 12 state Senate candidates and 24 candidates for the House of Representatives are missing or can’t be viewed on the secretary of state’s website.
Guidelines for filling out those forms are so vague, she said, they allow legislators to avoid disclosing how much they earn and with whom they do business.
Candidates can simply write “nonapplicable” in response to questions about revenue they earned from a private business, Sabo said.
She cited the potential for a candidate to shield conflicts of interests. She spoke about one lawmaker who listed an array of properties on a financial disclosure form but didn’t include information about renters or other sources of revenue from the properties.
“He is following the law here,” Sabo said, “but the law is not requiring enough to make it sufficient to let us know if there are conflicts of interest. That’s why law was enacted — to reveal conflict of interest, among other things,” she said.
Commissioners expressed concerns about Sabo’s findings.
“I’m appalled at how some of these forms were filled out,” Commissioner Frances Williams said.
Sabo said the problem lies with the relaxed rules on how to fill out the forms rather than with the political candidates and public officials who file them.
“Here’s the bottom line,” she said. “New Mexico could be doing a much better job of giving citizens and voters information by which to judge candidates and public officials so we can gauge … whether legislators are acting in their own best interests or in the interests of citizens.”
Sabo said she has spoken with some state legislators about drafting a bill to fix the issues in the next legislative session, scheduled to begin in mid-January.
Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said he didn’t believe anyone in the office had yet reviewed Sabo’s report. The office does check to ensure everyone who is required to file campaign finance reports has submitted the forms and that the information requested on the forms falls within the law, he said.
“It’s reasonable to see places where it could be improved,” Curtas said.
Tony Ortiz, also of New Mexico Ethics Watch, noted problems with tracking lobbyist activity in the state. He suggested lobbyists be required to report not only how much they earn but also which bills they lobbied for or against during each legislative session.
This would give residents an idea of “just how much money is being spent to move the needle on important issues in our state,” he said.