Duran case highlights need for independent ethics panel

Duran case highlights need for independent ethics panel

Common Cause New Mexico has long advocated for a truly independent, nonpartisan ethics commission, and a recent poll shows 86% of New Mexican voters agree.

Like the rest of the state, Common Cause New Mexico was shocked to hear of campaign-finance related criminal complaints against Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

The secretary of state’s duties include the implementation of campaign finance laws and lobbyist regulations, the enforcement of ethics laws for state officials, and the operation of elections across the state to ensure integrity and transparency.

These are critical functions, and we were very encouraged to read Gov. Susana Martinez’s statement ensuring that all relevant state agencies have assisted and will continue to assist the state Attorney General’s Office throughout the process.

Consistent, nonpartisan oversight is critical, and one strong solution is at our fingertips – a nonpartisan body to draw bright lines for elected officials and others defining what is ethical and legal.

Common Cause New Mexico has long advocated for a truly independent state ethics commission. Such bodies are a meaningful way for legislatures to strengthen their credibility with the public. Creating an ethics commission would:

  • Allow for consistent interpretation of laws and standards.
  • Provide education, guidance and training for public officials.
  • Serve as a deterrent for unethical practices in both state and local government.
  • Increase public confidence in the integrity of New Mexico government.
  • Increase the chances for fair and impartial enforcement of standards of conduct for those entrusted with public power.

In a survey of New Mexico voters by Research and Polling last year, eight in 10 respondents said corruption in New Mexico politics is a problem. A poll done this year for Common Cause indicated that 86 percent of registered voters in New Mexico support an independent ethics commission.

New Mexico routinely receives a failing grade from national organizations in the categories of transparency, accountability and risk of corruption. Specifically, these grades are in the areas of legislative accountability, public access to information, and transparency in the state budget process.

Sadly, the public perceives that our officials are corrupt — and the most recent allegations add fuel to the fire. Yet the vast majority of elected officials in New Mexico are honest, hardworking people. They bear the burden of the few who skim the edges of the law and who, with no oversight from the Legislature or the executive branch, tar New Mexico with the image of a banana republic.

State government serves the needs of all citizens, without regard to position, wealth or personal relationships. Public officials must perform their duties in an impartial manner, free from bias caused by their own financial interests or the financial interests of a person who has supported them.

Adequate enforcement mechanisms are needed to ensure that the laws, rules and standards for public officials are enforced vigorously and impartially.

While no laws or rules are a substitute for good moral character or intention, the creation of clear, fair, ethical rules and standards will draw bright lines to create a common view of appropriate behavior.

No individual, whether in or out of government, is the best judge of their own case. The creation of an independent entity to investigate allegations of violations of ethical standards will better insulate the process from political or partisan influences as well as protecting the public interest.

New Mexico is one of only nine states without an ethics commission. Over the past decade, the Legislature rejected almost 50 bills creating such a body. It is time that New Mexico steps up to create a carefully considered independent ethics commission with protections for legislators and whistleblowers alike to solidify trust between the public and our elected officials.

Meanwhile, we hope for a quick and fair resolution of the serious charges leveled against Dianna Duran. A long, drawn-out process will further corrode public trust in elected officials and hinder the important operations of the Secretary of State’s Office, which must work for all New Mexicans.

Our state and our citizens deserve no less.