COMMENTARY: Bribery. Fraud. Perjury. Tampering with public records. Violating the ethical principles of public service.
Former state Sen. Phil Griego is charged with egregious abuses of the public trust. As a lawmaker he pushed a bill to let a private company buy a historic Santa Fe building from the state. What Griego didn’t disclose, the attorney general alleges, is that the company paid Griego more than $50,000 for his assistance.
If it’s true, Griego should be punished.
But what then? We’ve been convicting and ousting misbehaving state government officials for more than a decade. It doesn’t seem to be reducing corruption or helping our state rise from the bottom of important lists.
I believe the vast majority of New Mexico’s 112 legislators and other government officials and employees are hard-working, good people.
But systemic, structural flaws discourage ethical behavior. We don’t pay lawmakers or give them adequate resources to do their jobs. We choose to let them be dependent on campaign donors and lobbyists.
Paying legislators alone won’t fix this mess. It must be partnered with stronger accountability – including a commission that sets ethical standards for government and helps police violations – and better transparency.
It’s noteworthy that archived video of a 2014 Senate Rules Committee hearing, recorded by the Governor’s Office, helps make the case against Griego. The amateur recording shows Griego presenting the resolution authorizing the real-estate transaction.
Webcast archiving isn’t enough. New Mexico needs many reforms. For example, Gov. Susana Martinez and some Republicans have pushed a bill that would require all candidates for legislative and statewide offices and many other officials to file financial disclosure statements. It would require those who have consulting businesses or spouses with consulting businesses to disclose information about clients who paid them more than $1,000.
The legislation comes partly in response to an issue I reported on in 2015. State Auditor Tim Keller, when he was a senator, failed to disclose that he did work for Laguna Pueblo. He actually claimed the opposite.
Keller’s Laguna work created a potential conflict. He repeatedly criticized the Martinez Administration’s awarding of a 25-year lease to The Downs at Albuquerque to operate a casino and racetrack at the state fair grounds. Laguna Pueblo was the losing bidder.
Keller had reason to scrutinize the questionable deal. The fair grounds are located in the Senate district he represented. But Keller also had a business relationship with Laguna that he didn’t disclose.
The situation highlights a serious problem: Many of our unpaid lawmakers have to seek other employment that creates conflicts. In the extreme that can lead to Griego’s alleged crimes.
Our weak laws sometimes don’t require transparency. How many others act unethically in secret?
Even good people make mistakes. Those bad choices can lead down dark roads.
Keller and Martinez have made mistakes, but they’re among those working for change. Both support increased financial disclosure. Both are pushing to reform the state’s problematic capital outlay system.
We must work together to build a system that encourages ethical behavior. Voters should embrace amending the state Constitution to pay our legislators. Policymakers must accept widespread reforms to increase transparency and accountability.
That will help the best among us lead. It will enable government to act in the interest of all New Mexicans. It’s how we’ll begin to rise from the bottom of important lists.