Thursday, November 02, 2006

Governor’s Ethics Reform Task Force J-school Piece

The recommendations of the Governor’s Ethics Reform Task Force were delivered to Gov. Bill Richardson behind closed doors by co-chairs former Gov. Garrey Carruthers and Dean Suellyn Scarnecchia and other members of the task force, Oct.4.

“I think we were bold, which the governor asked us to be, and I think we were constructive,” Carruthers said, who is dean of New Mexico State University College of Business. “Many of these recommendations, obviously need his support and the legislature’s support, but they’re the right kind of recommendations for the situation that New Mexico is in today.” He served as the state’s chief executive from 1987-91 and was appointed to co-chair the task force with Scarnecchia, who is dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law.

The 19-member task force, appointed by Richardson in the wake of a corruption scandal in the state treasurer’s office spanning, at least two elected treasurers presented a 23-page report addresses six particular issues: Establishing a state ethics commission, Imposing limits on gifts to elected officials and state employees, Imposing limits on campaign contributions to state elected officials and strengthening campaign reporting requirements, Providing expense reimbursement accounts for legislators, Changing the selection of the State Treasurer and State Auditor from elected to appointed, and Creating a system of public campaign financing for statewide-elected officials and judges.

Former New Mexico State Treasurers Robert Vigil and his predecessor Michael Montoya faced federal indictments for conspiracy, racketeering and interference with commerce by threats or violence, commonly known as the Hobbs Act. Montoya plead guilty to one count of the indictment and agreed to testify against Vigil. Vigil faced two month-long trials in federal court. The first trail ended in a hung jury when one, former state employee held out for acquittal. In a retrial Vigil was acquitted of 23 of the 24 count indictment and was convicted of a lesser count of attempted extortion and faces up to 20 years in prison, or as little as 12 months.

When he came into office after Vigil resigned, current State Treasurer Doug Brown, said during the task force meeting that he found some employees were spending more than half of their tax paid time soliciting contractors to contribute to charities favored by the former treasurer Vigil.
“The task force is hopeful that the legislature will look at the complete reform package,” said Albuquerque City Councillor Brad Winter.” “I believe the public will have a lot of say on how far this reform measure goes.” Winter, who took over a year to push a city charter amendment through city council, said of the state’s task force, “The public wants ethic reform and I believe they want to feel good about government.”

Questions of the openness of the process lingered even though the task force dispensed with any thought of holding sessions in private. ”The committee did make a motion to have the meetings open to the public, Winter said. “We felt it was very important that the meetings be open so we could listen to their input.”

“There are several different recommendations, so I think that each, each one will be taken on its own merit and it will be a mixed bag,” said New Mexico Senator Dede Feldman, who represents the North Valley of Bernalillo County when asked during an interview, how she thought her fellow lawmakers would react to the recommendations. “I don’t expect overwhelming acclimation from the legislature when we, walk in with the proposal; nor do I expect complete rejection, I think it will depend upon which one of the issues you’re talking about.”

Asked whether the public discussion was a worthwhile process, “It really gave us the chance to air some of the problems and some of the solutions to unethical conduct by a few bad apples,” Feldman said. “And how to prevent that from happening in the future, while not penalizing the vast majority of public officials who are serving in the legislature anyway without any salary, without any staff and trying to do a good job.”

Richardson has not announced what recommendations, if any, he will support through suggested legislation in the upcoming 60-day session, if he is reelected.

“I think limiting gifts, campaign contributions, having an ethics commission just make good sense, for example,” Carruthers said.

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