- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The New Mexico Legislature has abandoned efforts in an election year to establish an ethics commission that would oversee the conduct of public officials, lobbyists and state contractors.

A proposed constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics agency died in a Senate committee on Tuesday after amendments were suggested that would rein in its authority to penalize violations and publicly disclose some ethics complaints.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have openly fretted that an ethics commission could be used as a forum for false accusations designed to inflict political damage, despite language in the proposal that bans anonymous complaints and dismisses frivolous accusations. The entire Legislature is up for re-election in November.

The plan was an ambitious component of reforms proposed in response to a campaign finance scandal last year that led the resignation and jailing of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

The author of the initiative, Republican Rep. Jim Dines of Albuquerque, refused to endorse the committee revisions “on principle,” saying they would leave an agency with limited investigative abilities and no authority to publicly discuss, judge and penalize ethics violations.

“It needs to be something that is adjudicated in the public arena to have some teeth,” said Dines, a retired attorney who specialized in freedom-of-speech law. “It would become a toothless tiger.”

The House of Representatives voted a week ago in favor of creating the ethics commission to subpoena witnesses and government records and issue civil citations and penalties under a long list of laws regarding campaign contributions, lobbying and gift giving.

That moved the constitutional amendment to the Senate Rules Committee, where revisions were suggested that would have struck references to adjudicatory and subpoena powers, as well as provision for making all complaints available to the public.

New Mexico is one of eight states that do not have an independent ethics commission or committee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state relies heavily on agencies overseen directly by elected officials or legislators themselves to oversee campaign finance and ethics transgressions.

Vulnerabilities in that system were laid bare by the prosecution of Duran, one of the New Mexico’s top elected officials, who pleaded guilty in October to felony embezzlement and money laundering charges for using campaign donations to fuel a gambling spree.

For violating the rules she was supposed to uphold, Duran served 30 days in jail and was order to pay restitution, apologize to campaign donors and speak to schoolchildren about her experience for years to come.

The ethics commission envisioned by Dines would have provided advisory opinions on requests to clarify regulations or vet ethical dilemmas.

Those provisions were designed to protect public officials from unwittingly committing infractions in a state that is increasingly rife with political attack ads, said Heather Ferguson, an advocate for new campaign disclosures and ethics regulations with Common Cause New Mexico.

Legislators were uneasy with the plan nonetheless.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said more time is needed to address concerns that an ethics commission could be “used to embarrass or politically damage someone with false accusations.”

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, cautioned against giving an ethics commission direct subpoena powers and worried about publishing complaints before they are fully investigated.

Lopez introduced a separate bill in January to create an ethics commission that would requires people who file complaints to sign a confidentiality form with penalties of up to $10,000 or a year in jail for improper disclosure.

Lopez sits on the Legislature’s year-round ethics committee and emphasized the need to keep unfounded accusations private. “If we would list every complaint that comes up on that, there would be several of us in this room that may have a complaint,” she said.

Dines and senators on the committee said they would return to the ethics commission initiative during the 2017 legislative session.

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