COMMENTARY: Gov. Susana Martinez’s recent abuse of power demonstrates the need for an independent commission to set standards for ethical conduct in state government and investigate complaints.
Martinez can be heard on several law enforcement recordings inappropriately pressuring police to drop an investigation into a noise complaint after her Christmas party earlier this month. She has admitted to drinking 1-1.5 cocktails but says she wasn’t intoxicated.
The governor has apologized for her actions. That’s a step up from some past officials’ lack of repentance after being caught abusing law enforcement. I recently wrote a column accepting the governor’s apology.
But it’s not enough. New Mexico policymakers have refused for a decade, in spite of constant revelations about corruption and misbehaving, to create a commission focused on raising the bar in our ethically challenged state.
Forty-two other states have ethics commissions. New Mexico has an independent group watching our judicial branch, and it’s made a real difference. But our executive and legislative branches remain unchecked. The Legislature has a committee to investigate complaints against lawmakers, but that body has a pitiful record of policing its own. The executive branch lacks any real oversight for misdeeds that don’t rise to the level of criminal activity.
Martinez has rejected arguments for creating an ethics commission. “Corruption is a crime, not an ethical dilemma,” she said during her 2011 State of the State Address.
There are all sorts of shenanigans that aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be prosecuted as crimes. Martinez’s plan for cleaning up state government is sorely lacking when it comes to addressing such issues.
Over the years a seemingly endless stream of elected officials and government employees – Republicans and Democrats alike – have come under media scrutiny for misbehaving. A few examples:
A legislator worked as a contractor for a company whose project he helped fund with public money. The former state land commissioner had the office’s government-funded attorney defend him against a speeding ticket. The former Senate president pro tem inappropriately used government resources to campaign for re-election. A lawmaker used public money to fund a college club sport team he worked with instead of projects for his constituents. Another legislator appropriated public money to an education program run by his wife, who spent the money on a private, invitation-only party.
In these situations and too many others, public money vanished into a black hole instead of benefiting the public.
And too many of these offenders have gone unpunished. So their actions have instead been absorbed into our culture of government as permissible conduct.
House Democrats are pushing creation of an ethics commission in the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 19. Martinez will decide whether to allow consideration of ethics-reform proposals in the 30-day session, which is focused on the budget.
A handful of Democrats announced their ethics proposals two days before Thanksgiving – which isn’t the most effective way to launch a media blitz. Rather than actually enacting reform, I fear some of them are focused on being able to say they pushed reform when trying to retake the House from Republicans in next year’s election.
For a decade, some Democrats in the Legislature have joined many Republicans in rejecting ethics commission legislation.
Regardless, House Democrats are currently a step ahead of Martinez, who hasn’t indicated she sees the need for an ethics commission. Perhaps having to apologize to the people of New Mexico for her recent transgression will help the governor see the light.