It seems like several lifetimes ago, but actually it was slightly less than a year and a half ago that the Legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment to create a state ethics commission, which would investigate possible public corruption cases and campaign finance violations. In November, voters will decide whether to approve that amendment.
The Legislature’s approval of the amendment in March 2017 was the culmination of an effort that took more than a decade — although leaders of New Mexico Common Cause say there were some efforts to create an ethics commission as early as the 1970s. But the idea began picking up steam after the 2005 arrests — and eventually the convictions — of two state treasurers, Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya, on corruption charges based on a kickback scheme.
Since that time there were dozens of pieces of ethics commission legislation, some of them good, some of them bad. I was especially fond of — in sardonic way — a proposal several years ago that would have imposed penalties for leaking information from the commission to the press. In that legislation, the penalties for leaking were worse than the punishment for any ethical violation.
But it seems so long ago that anyone was even talking about an ethics commission, sometimes I wonder whether voters will remember some of the outrageous violations of public trust that created the demand for a watchdog body.
Do people, outside the world of political junkies and Roundhouse wags, even remember Vigil and Montoya?
Or Manny Aragon? Or Jerome Block Jr.? Or Dianna Duran?
Then something happened last week that made me realize that there are enough fresh allegations of corruption in New Mexico that it probably doesn’t even matter if people forget those nefarious old cases.
Legislative candidate Andrea Romero — who defeated incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo, who is accused of sexually harassing a lobbyist, in the Democratic primary — hasn’t been charged with any crimes. But State Auditor Wayne Johnson last week released an audit report that documented more than $51,500 in improper reimbursements on the part of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities — the obscure body of which Romero was the executive director.
Those improper expenses include meals at fancy restaurants, travel, Major League Baseball tickets, “in-room entertainment” and drinks — such as the now infamous $28 shot of WhistlePig whiskey. More than half of those questioned reimbursements were payments made to Romero’s media company.
Romero’s Republican opponent is bound to make some hay with this audit report.
Oh wait … there is no Republican opponent in the District 46 race. Romero’s only opponent is a write-in candidate, political newcomer Heather Nordquist.
However the race turns out, Common Cause ought to send a thank-you note to Romero for keeping the corruption issue on the minds of New Mexicans.
And they should consider buying a card for a couple of other political figures here. First there’s Gov. Susana Martinez’s former Taxation and Revenue secretary, Demesia Padilla, who last month made her first court appearance in a case in which she’s charged with eight public corruption counts.
Padilla is accused, among other crimes, of illegally transferring about $25,000 from the bank account of Bernalillo-based Harold’s Grading and Trucking, which was a client of her accounting business. Her preliminary hearing is set to begin on Oct. 29, just days before voters decide whether to approve the ethics commission amendment.
And former state Sen. Phil Griego, D-San José, convicted late last year on five criminal charges including fraud and embezzlement, was back in the news last week. Griego, who is serving an 18-month prison sentence for that first case, will plead guilty this month to charges dealing with false campaign finance reports. Prosecutors claim he embezzled $7,337 from his own campaign funds. But affidavits from an investigator for the Attorney General’s Office indicate there were more questionable transactions.
There always seems to be new cases of alleged corruption in New Mexico to keep the issue on our minds. Hopefully a state ethics commission will at least slow down this never-ending stream of official wrongdoing.