- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - House Democratic leaders on Monday rolled out their proposals for reforming New Mexico’s scandal-plagued campaign finance reporting system and creating a statewide ethics commission, measures they say would help restore voters’ faith in government.

They also want to toughen a pension forfeiture law aimed at corrupt elected officials and require that donations funneled to winning candidates for inaugural celebrations be reported just as any another campaign contributions.

Democrats outlined their plans during a news conference outside the secretary of state’s office in Santa Fe. The announcement comes just a month after Republican Dianna Duran tendered her resignation as the state’s top elections official and pleaded guilty to embezzlement and other charges.

Duran’s case thrust New Mexico’s campaign finance reporting system into the spotlight and rekindled calls for more transparency and accountability among elected officials.

“Ethics appears to be like other issues in which you need to have a crisis before we get the momentum and the attention of the legislative body,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

He pointed to Duran’s case as well as questions that have been raised about Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political adviser, Jay McCleskey, and his fundraising tactics. Martinez has acknowledged being questioned by federal agents, but she has said she’s confident McCleskey did nothing wrong.

The next legislative session begins in January and will focus on the budget. It’s unclear whether the governor will add any of the transparency and ethics proposals to the agenda.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Some supporters of an ethics commission have called for introducing a constitutional amendment, which would not need the governor’s approval but would extend the time frame for getting such a body established given that voters would have to sign off.

The ideas floated Tuesday are anything but new, and Egolf acknowledged that getting such proposals through the Legislature - even when Democrats had control of both houses - has been difficult.

And little has come from reform efforts in previous years that were triggered by other high-profile public corruption scandals.

There were the cases of two former state treasurers, both Democrats, who were convicted in a kickback scheme involving state investments and the conviction of a former Senate president who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud in an effort to defraud the state during construction of a courthouse.

Then there was the federal probe of an alleged pay-to-play scheme that prompted former Gov. Bill Richardson to withdraw his nomination as U.S. commerce secretary. Despite the suspicions of federal prosecutors, no charges were ever filed.

“The time is now,” Egolf said repeatedly.

He and other Democrats said the state has the money to invest in an ethics commission and fixing the campaign finance reporting system could be done through new software that allows tracking of donations and expenses much like the federal system.

Viki Harrison, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause New Mexico, said having a system that allows the public to download and easily search campaign finance records will boost accountability and transparency along with the public’s trust.

“We’ve got a lot to rebuild,” she said.


Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM . Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/susan-montoya-bryan

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