March 14, 2016

When Checks and Balances Fall Short: Ethics Oversight Needed

By Katherine Duncan & Walker Davis

In case it wasn’t already clear, having accountability measures in place for elected officials is crucial. Unchecked power is a formula for corruption. Perhaps nowhere has this been more clear recently than in state-level politics in New Mexico and Mississippi, both of which lack appropriate accountability systems and both of which have faced local scrutiny and public outrage after widely reported ethical issues, including public officials using campaign funds for personal expenses.

New Mexico is one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission.  Mississippi is effectively a ninth. There, the Secretary of State is tasked with enforcing the law, but no one really does. Recent investigations have uncovered rampant political corruption in both states. In Mississippi, even lobbyists disapprove. States without ethics oversight may be more vulnerable to public corruption. These states would both benefit from lawmakers with higher ethical standards. Independent, non-partisan ethical oversight bodies can help.  

After a string of high-profile and embarrassing fraud scandals, New Mexico’s legislature recently considered amending their state constitution to create a non-partisan independent ethics commission, but after passing the state House, the measure ultimately died in the Senate.

Most glaring of these violations was former New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s resignation and jailing last year after a campaign finance scandal stemming from her use of campaign donations to pay gambling debts. Duran pleaded guilty to embezzlement and money laundering for transferring $13,000 in campaign donations to personal accounts, hiding the transfers by modifying campaign finance reports.

Though Duran’s legal and ethical issues were flashy, the more shocking revelation is the breadth of misreporting in the state. A recent investigation of ten members of the state legislative leadership found a $150,908.74 difference between what PACs and lobbyists report having given and what legislators report having received. The New Mexico campaign finance system was found to “mislead [and fail] voters.” Legislators claim to be “stunned.”

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who is also the chair of the Republican Governor’s Association, claims to be “committed to transparency,” but the same investigation of state campaign finance reports uncovered a $147,081 difference between reported contributions to her campaign and reported receipts.

The latest political abuse plaguing New Mexico is a criminal complaint filed by state Attorney General Hector Balderas against former Democratic state Sen. Phil Griego for using “his position as a legislator to make money in a real estate deal, [which he] never disclosed,” and defrauding business associates. The Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board referred to Griego’s “ethics woes” as evidence that the state needs an ethics commission.

It is easy to understand how politicians stand to benefit from lack of oversight, but it is just as easy to see that voters stand to lose. A recent study revealed that public corruption is hurting the state’s economy, and a poll found that local business owners see corruption as a financial threat.

The ethics and transparency landscape in Mississippi politics is similarly bleak. An exhaustive recent special investigation by a state newspaper found that elected officials commonly use campaign funds for private gain, and it largely goes unpunished because of the state’s weak ethics laws “and almost nonexistent enforcement.”

Independent ethics commissions put in place to detect public corruption and hold elected officials accountable have proven effective in states like Texas and California. These agencies prove that campaign finance enforcement does not have to go the way of the FEC, and both should serve as models to other states. Last year, the Texas Ethics Commission and California’s Fair Political Practices Commission each addressed secretive political spending with new disclosure rules.

Instead of being part of the problem that is money’s outsized and corrupting influence in politics, states like New Mexico and Mississippi have an opportunity to work toward a solution—a step that New Mexico came close to taking with its recent ethics commission proposal.  Disappointingly, New Mexico’s reform effort ultimately fell short due to concerns that and ethics commission could be “could be used as a forum for false accusations designed to inflict political damage.” New Mexico should reconsider; political risks are a small price to pay for the opportunity to restore trust with voters and support the state economy.

Mississippi is currently considering a bill requiring itemized campaign finance reports that, if passed, would be a good first step towards keeping lawmakers from making personal use of campaign money. This past weekend, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger wrote about “7 campaign finance reforms lawmakers should pass,” which included a suggestion to “provide auditing, enforcement and penalties”—or rather, the activities that an independent oversight body like an ethics commission would provide. In addition, New Mexico Governor Martinez just signed a campaign finance disclosure bill, which is a small step in the right direction. Though these recent shifts toward more political disclosure in New Mexico and Mississippi are welcome, both states would greatly benefit from the structure and oversight of an ethics commission that keeps the public informed and keeps public officials accountable. 

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