- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico voters will decide next year whether to create an independent political ethics commission in an effort to shore up trust in government after a string of corruption scandals.

The state Legislature on Friday approved a constitutional amendment that calls for creating a seven-member body to investigate ethics violations and apply sanctions.

The vote capped a decades-long effort by government watchdog groups and select lawmakers to put ethics complaints in the hands of an independent authority.

“It was easier to abolish the death penalty and cock fights,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

Currently, complaints are vetted by partisan elected officials at the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, while lawmakers probe initial ethics concerns about colleagues.

Guidelines for the appointment of the seven-member ethics board were negotiated and agreed upon Friday by a joint House-Senate conference committee. Appointments would largely be left to legislative leaders from both parties, with one seat appointed by the governor.

Transparency guidelines about complaints and when they are made public will be written into law after the ballot initiative. The lead sponsor of the initiative, Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, has advocated for making ethics complaints public as soon as a response is filed.

The commission would enforce standards of conduct for state officers, employees, lobbyists and contractors, along with campaign finance restrictions and reporting requirements for political candidates. It would have the authority to issue subpoenas and civil penalties.

Last year, a similar constitutional amendment was approved by the House but stalled in the Senate over concerns that a commission would become a forum for false accusations and political vendettas.

New Mexico is one of eight states without an independent ethics body.

Recent corruption scandals involving public officials include the case of former Sen. Phil Griego, who faces fraud and bribery charges linked to his private commission on the sale of a state-owned building. Griego maintains his innocence.

Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran resigned and pleaded guilty in 2015 to spending campaign funds on a gambling spree, spending a month in jail.

More recently, Demesia Padilla resigned as state taxation and revenue secretary in December after prosecutors raided her agency’s offices and seized her personal tax filings amid allegations she gave preferential treatment to a former business client. She has not been charged.

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