Tuesday, June 13, 2006

We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethics Reform!

What’s wrong with this picture?

This is Andres Valdez of New Mexico Vecinos Unidos at last week’s city council meeting. He is an outspoken critic of the board of ethics and campaign practices. He is speaking in favor of stricter ethics reform legislation.

New Mexico Vecinos Unidos was one of three groups that brought forward complaints of violations of the city charter’s ethics sections against Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez for his accepting money from ABQPAC. Former City Councillor Hess Yntema originated the complaint and the other group participating was Common Cause.

The ethics board found Chávez in violation of the ethics sections of improperly taking money from people doing business with the city and from city employees. The board took the minimum allowable punitive action; a public reprimand.

Chávez returned some $60,000 to the ABQPAC.

Valdez appealed to District Court insisting that the ethics board failed to render its decision properly. The court agreed and sent the decision back to the board to make proper findings of fact and law in public. The board simply reiterated its original decision without a statement of its findings. Valdez again appealed to District Court. The judge again remanded that decision telling the board to again make findings in public. The board ignored the judge’s requirement to make the findings in public and instead went into closed session and finally rendered its findings. There were no changes from their original conclusions.

In November, 2002, Valdez filed an ethics complaint against Councillor Brad Winter for accepting $600 for a plane ticket from the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau to visit Japan in 2001. The complaint was dismissed. Winter said he had done nothing wrong. Then Director of Council Services Mark Sanchez said that the convention and visitors bureau paid for the ticket because Winter’s trip was, in part, to promote Albuquerque.

Valdez was particularly specific in pointing out that now Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Perlman, seen on the left, had been Chávez’ campaign treasurer in 2001. Perlman devised the ABQPAC after the election to pay the personal expenses for Chávez’ wife's travel and cell phone. It also paid Chávez’ past campaign debts.

Perlman was completely oblivious to Valdez’ attack as he sat at the administration’s table a couple of feet from him.

The other person Valdez pointed out for criticism was Chairman of the Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices Robert Tinnin. Tinnin, seen on the right in this 2005 photo, now in his third term, has served as the “neutral” head of the ethics board.

Tinnin has had a number of contracts with the city attorney’s office doing legal work during his terms. He has repeatedly been challenged for being in a conflict of interest. He insists that because he is not a regular employee of the city and only a “contract worker,” that the prohibition against city employees sitting on boards or commissions does not apply to him. He refuses to recognize that while being paid by the city to render legal opinions as the mayor’s agent, there is not only the appearance of impropriety, but also an actual financial conflict.

Councillors Ken Sanchez, left, and Don Harris both defended the ethics board. Sanchez lashed out at Valdez’ statement saying that there is definitely a need for ethics reform at the state level, based on recent events, but it isn't as necessary at the local level.

According to the Tribune, Sanchez was quoted as saying, "I feel we've done a great job," he said. "We live up to the highest standards of ethics."

In 2002, Sanchez, a former Bernalillo County Commissioner, was a Democratic primary candidate for state treasurer. He took a $750 contribution from ABQPAC. It was alleged that it started as a $1,000 anonymous contribution that the donator wanted to go to Sanchez, but did not want to reveal. Two hundred-fifty dollars was siphoned off for Chávez.

Harris wanted to echo Sanchez, saying that he had found the ethics board had handled a complaint against him in a fair and even handed manner.

These are the three City Councillors; Craig Loy, Sally Mayer and Ken Sanchez, who voted against Winter’s ethics reform bill.

Winter’s legislation was attempting to tighten sections of the city charter’s code of ethics articles and to make the process transparent.

There is an impression that people seeking to do business with the city have to pay to play.

One long time, well established city supplier told me that he was not so subtly told that if he wanted continued contracts he had to make political contributions.

To change the city’s charter, Winter needed the support of seven council votes; a super majority to pass his legislation.

The bill would have redefined and expanded the definitions of gifts that elected city officials could accept. It prevents city employees from being used in political campaigns. It also defines what business interests with the city are and requires disclosure of contributions. It further establishes a process to follow for those who have made such contributions and sought to do business with the city.

Mayer said she wanted someone else to keep track of her contributors and wanted them to warn her when one of them had an issue before the council.

Loy said that he did not want elected officials’ hands tied by not being able to vote on issues involving their campaign contributors.

It seems that at least these three councillors don’t want to expose their dealings to be under public scrutiny. Apparently they don’t like the definition of ethics that have been hammered out by Winter over the past eight months.

Winter has promised to put the question directly to the voters during the next city election scheduled for November, 2007. Loy will be up for reelection.

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