Ethics bills move through committees

By Deborah Baker: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A piece of Gov. Bill Richardson’s ethics package got unanimous committee endorsement Monday and headed to the full House for a vote.

A Senate panel also approved a much broader measure, barring people who do business with the state from contributing to statewide officials — including the governor, a position added at the request of a lawmaker who criticized what he called the “pay to play” culture of the Richardson administration.

The ethics bills were prompted by a recent kickback scandal in the state treasurer’s office in which ex-Treasurer Robert Vigil faces felony charges and his predecessor, Michael Montoya, has pleaded guilty.

The House bill takes existing restrictions on state officials, employees and lawmakers doing business with the state and expands them to their family members. Among those restrictions: Officials must disclose their interest in firms seeking state business.

The bill prohibits public officials and employees — and their businesses — from selling goods or services to the state agency the officials are associated with.

It also bars state officials and employees from coercing campaign contributions from workers or threatening them to get them to support candidates.

Lawmakers, public officials and state employees also would be prohibited from disclosing confidential information for private gain.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill — which was sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. It was sent to the House floor for a vote.
The Senate Rules Committee approved a much broader measure that’s not part of the governor’s package. It bars elected statewide officials from taking “anything of value” from people who do business with their offices. Anyone who has contributed to a candidate couldn’t do business with the office for at least two years after an election.

“About the only thing that could be given by investment advisors or accepted by elected officials without them having to face fourth-degree felony charges would be refreshments costing less than $25,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

As introduced by Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, the bill covered the auditor, treasurer, secretary of state, land commissioner, attorney general and candidates for those positions.

The committee agreed with Sen. Rod Adair’s proposal to add the governor.

The Roswell Republican contended in an interview that under the Democratic Richardson administration there is a much higher correlation between political contributions and political favors than in earlier administrations.

“The word ’pay to play’ is thrown around all the time. … There is a very different ambiance from that of previous governors,” said Adair, who is one of the few lawmakers openly critical of the governor.

Feldman’s bill goes next to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Prosecutors allege Vigil and Montoya demanded kickbacks from investment advisers in exchange for steering state business to them. Montoya pleaded guilty to one count of extortion and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors; Vigil faces 19 counts.