Politics

Can New Mexico Break Its Cycle of Corruption?

The conviction and incarceration of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran is the latest in a long history of scandals. Lawmakers are pushing ethics reforms, but some doubt change will come.
by | December 21, 2015
New Mexico's former secretary of state, Dianna Duran, is serving a 30-day sentence in jail. (AP/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The silver lining of any political scandal is that if it's embarrassing enough, it might bring about needed change. The downside is that it might leave the public so cynical that they won't push for change, believing nothing can be done to fix a broken system.

The question of how these twin dynamics will play out next year in New Mexico -- which has notoriously weak ethics laws and a long history of corruption among high-ranking officials -- is near the top of the state's political agenda.

The recent resignation, conviction and incarceration of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran for embezzlement and money laundering has already prompted calls for major changes to the state's ethics and campaign finance laws.

Duran, who began serving a 30-day sentence on Friday, mixed personal and campaign accounts to fuel a gambling addiction, withdrawing more than $430,000 from her accounts at casinos. She has issued a court-ordered apology and will have to give speeches describing her downfall.

"This is the year to have sweeping reforms in New Mexico," said Viki Harrison, head of Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes open and accountable government. "If not now, when?"

But Harrison and other advocates are skeptical that change will come.

That's because for one, the legislature is scheduled to meet for only 30 days in 2016. And although state House Democrats introduced an ethics package,  it's not certain how much momentum it will get, partially because many advocates worry the public has already grown too skeptical to think it's worthwhile to demand systemic change.

"This is just one more example of political corruption in our state over the last 10 years," said Gabriel Sanchez, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico.

As Sanchez points out, Duran is the third consecutive secretary of state to face criminal complaints in New Mexico. In 2013, Mary Herrera was accused of politicizing the office, but the state attorney general declined to bring charges against her. (She eventualy lost to Duran in 2010.)  Her predecessor, Rebecca Vigil-Giron was indicted for alleged embezzlement, but charges were eventually dropped.

The problems don't stop with the secretary of state's office, though.

A decade ago, two former state treasurers were arrested and convicted in a federal racketeering case. In 2008, former top state Senate leader Manny Aragon was convicted of conspiracy and fraud. In 2009, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name from consideration for U.S. Commerce Secretary amid an investigation into allegations of corruption. He, however, was never charged. In 2010, his successor, Republican Susana Martinez, ran on an anti-corruption platform. Now, her top political consultant is reportedly under federal investigation into possible fundraising violations; just this weekend, the Santa Fe New Mexican learned that feds have subpoenaed payroll, expense and law enforcement records from Martinez's time as District Attorney "in connection with a criminal investigation"; and to top it all off, the newly elected head of the Republican Governors Association has also come under fire for her recent publicized exchange with 911 operators in which she attempts to obstruct their investigation of noise complaints at the hotel where her staff was having a holiday party.

"Basically, it's a repeat of Richardson's second term in office," said Sanchez. "Now we're right back to where we were, only with a different party."

New Mexico is certainly not alone with problems of officials using public money to line their personal pockets. Dean Skelos, a former Senate majority leader in New York, was found guilty of corruption on Dec. 11 -- just two weeks after Sheldon Silver, the state's former Assembly speaker, was also found guilty of corruption. Other states such as Illinois, Louisiana and New Jersey have had rich histories of corruption in recent years.

Like many states, New Mexico has traditionally had weak ethics laws and enforcement. The secretary of state's office rarely fines lawmakers who break the rules -- and even more rarely collects those fines. It's one of only eight states without an independent ethics commission. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) recently gave New Mexico a D-minus for ethics and accountability, ranking in the middle of the states.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, center, was cleared of corruption allegations. (AP/Dean Hanson)

The state capital maintains an insular, insider culture, according to Gwyneth Doland, a reporter in the state who wrote CPI's study. It makes for a collegial and often productive environment, but legislators resist anything that might upset that balance.

"We've seen in the past that many people in leadership believe that an independent ethics commission, for example, will be nothing but a political tool for interest groups and candidates to try to tarnish sitting lawmakers," she said.

Some lawmakers, however, think it's time to change that way of thinking and believe an election year -- all members of the state House and Senate go before voters in 2016 -- is the right time to do it.

Last month, House Democrats announced a package of proposals intended to address corruption concerns, chief among them a bill to create an independent ethics commission. The legislation would also revoke pension payments from any public official convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties or campaign activities. Donations to inaugural committees would have to be publicly reported and easily searchable. And all candidate disclosure forms would be reported via a new electronic system that would immediately check for errors and cross-check contributions against reports by lobbyists.

But it's not clear that House Republicans, who control the chamber, will embrace these ideas. Indeed, none of them will even come up for a vote unless the governor includes them on her agenda for the short session.

"If it becomes a partisan thing, I don't know if it will pass," said Dede Feldman, a former Democratic state senator.

Feldman said she's cautiously optimistic, though, that ethics legislation will have real momentum in 2016. Scandals create a tense atmosphere, but they're the best ingredients for changing a set of rules that no longer appear to work.

"This is not the session for piecemeal reforms," said Harrison of Common Cause. "This is the session for something big and bold to restore the public's trust for anyone who's elected in New Mexico."

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