- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 9, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico has moved closer than ever to creating an independent ethics commission to keep watch over the conduct of public officials in the wake of a campaign finance scandal that led the resignation and jailing of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

The House of Representatives voted in favor Tuesday of a constitutional amendment to create an independent agency overseeing the conduct and campaign finance activities of officials at state agencies and the Legislature, as well as lobbyists, state contractors and candidates for state or county offices. The vote was 50-10. Senate approval is still needed before the amendment goes to voters in November.

The ethics commission would have the power to subpoena witnesses and government records and issue civil citations and penalties under a long list of laws over campaign contributions, lobbying and gift giving. Criminal cases still would be forwarded to prosecutors.

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. New Mexico 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 school children about her experience for years to come.

“If not this, what? If not now, when?” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, author and co-sponsor of the constitutional amendment. “I think that it’s important to go ahead and take a stand.”

Proponents of the ethics commission have cast it as an opportunity for New Mexico politicians to regain the public’s trust - and also ensure they don’t unwittingly commit infractions.

The new ethics commission would provide advisory opinions on request to clarify regulations or vet ethical dilemmas, said Heather Ferguson of Common Cause New Mexico, a group advocating new campaign disclosures and ethics regulations.

“I think right now they (legislators) are more exposed and less protected that they would be,” Ferguson said. “They can get an advisory opinion and literally have it in their back pocket.”

Recent amendments to the initiative would allow the ethics commission to dismiss frivolous complaints, after some lawmakers fretted about opening the door to tit-for-tat complaints or political vendettas.

“I could see a string of coordinated attacks against a candidate and the only consequence is to have something dismissed,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, who was unsatisfied by the amendments.

Vetted complaints would be published online after an opportunity is provided for a response.

Appointments to the nine-member commission would made by the governor, majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, with no more than four members affiliated with one political party.

The Legislature is weighing a long list of additional ethics and campaign finance reforms. Here is how some have fared so far:

- A bipartisan plan to overhaul of the state’s online clearinghouse for political contributions and lobbying expenditures could be the next measure to reach the House floor. The proposal would standardize electronic reporting so that filings by candidates, lobbyists and political committees can be searched, cross-referenced or downloaded for analysis. It also would require lobbyists to file regular reports, as candidates already do.

- Proposed legislation has been shelved without discussion that would toughen a pension-forfeiture law aimed at corrupt elected officials. Duran has started receiving a state pension of at least $60,000 a year, despite a 2012 campaign finance law that allows judges to increase sentences against the value of salary and fringe benefits.

- A proposal that would shine light on the amount of money being funneled toward political campaigns by nonprofits and other independent groups has made little headway so far. The bill responds to provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which critics blame for a flood of “dark money” into political campaigns.

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