More officials prove need for an ethics commission

Print

Add two Republicans to the bipartisan list of public officials in New Mexico who, by their own actions, prove the need for an independent ethics commission to help foster a culture of integrity in government and punish those who abuse their positions.

The Albuquerque Journal has run articles in the last few days detailing ethically challenged situations involving state Land Commissioner Pat Lyons and state Sen. Joe Carraro, a 1st Congressional District candidate from Albuquerque.

Lyons, according to the Journal article, was charged with speeding and weaving across lanes in a state vehicle on Interstate 25 near Truth or Consequences more than a year ago. Instead of paying the fines, Lyons decided to fight, and he had Land Office general counsel Robert Stranahan represent him in the case.

“We made the decision that I could go down (as Lyons’ legal representative) based on the fact he had been traveling to a spaceport meeting at the time and was driving a state vehicle,” Stranahan told the Journal. Stranahan drove to T or C from Santa Fe in February to file motions in the case, but he didn’t file paperwork to be on unpaid leave for that time until earlier this month – after a reporter from KRQE News 13 in Albuquerque asked about the situation. Stranahan has also quit working on the case since reporters began asking questions.

Attorney General Gary King called the situation “very troubling” in an interview with KRQE and said “it’s not appropriate for an attorney who works for the state to represent any other state employee under circumstances like that.”

“If you violate a law, even if you’re ostensibly on state business, the violation of that law is always considered to be outside of your duties as a state official. Violating the law is not something that you can do as part of your official duties,” King told KRQE.

King said the situation could violate state law and canons of ethics and creates a potential conflict of interest. No kidding. You would think the only Republican statewide elected official in New Mexico would have the sense to understand that.

Consulting and appropriating at the same time

Carraro, meanwhile, was paid $5,000 per month as a consultant in 2005 and 2006 for an artificial turf company while he sought appropriations later used by local governments to pay the company for work, the Journal reported in a separate article. Though the appropriations didn’t dictate the hiring of Real Turf, the company had a price agreement in place that allowed schools to hire it without first seeking bids, which made its selection more likely.

A former accountant for the company has said Carraro pushed the hiring of the company to schools while he was being paid, but Carraro told the newspaper that isn’t true. Regardless, the volunteer lawmaker made $40,000 consulting for the company while he ultimately secured legislative appropriations for the company. As a consultant to the company, Carraro likely knew about the price agreement and that Real Turf would probably be awarded contracts for some of the work.

Carraro apparently wrote a letter to several area governments in November 2005 stating that, due to “personal and business relationships” with the company, he would not be involved in the “direct appropriation of monies for the purchase of their product” because of “the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest,” the Journal reported. However, three months after he sent the letter, Carraro sponsored about $100,000 in funding for contracts that were later awarded to Real Turf.

The Journal reported on Tuesday about a second state senator, Republican John Ryan of Albuquerque, who worked as a Washington lobbyist for the same company. Ryan told the newspaper he didn’t do any work on the state level for the company and he didn’t know until he read the article about Carraro that state funds went to Real Turf. Had he known that, he said, he probably would have recused himself from voting.

A bipartisan lack of ethics

The behavior of Lyons and Stranahan in the traffic case is outrageous. Carraro’s actions are problematic, and even Ryan’s raise questions about when a lawmaker should recuse himself from voting or, at least, publicly disclose ties.

The three Republican elected officials aren’t alone in treading into ethically murky waters. Two recent state treasurers and the former deputy insurance superintendent, all Democrats, are now convicted felons for misdeeds while on state business. The former president of the state Senate, a Democrat, is under indictment. The list of Democrats who have been criticized publicly for conflicts of interest include Gov. Bill Richardson, state Sen. Shannon Robinson, state Rep. Richard Vigil, state Sen. Mary Jane Garcia and former Attorney General Patricia Madrid. In addition, Lyons is embroiled in another conflict-of-interest controversy over his ties to a Las Cruces developer.

There is a bipartisan lack of ethics in Santa Fe.

That’s not to say there aren’t public officials in this state who know how to avoid impropriety and its appearance. Many do. But there is also a culture of back-room dealing and a lack of accountability that allows for some egregious situations when public officials are willing to disregard ethical conduct.

And while the Legislature has a do-nothing ethics committee that’s supposed to keep lawmakers in check – but does not – the executive branch has nothing. For two years, the Legislature has killed proposals to create an independent, bipartisan state ethics commission.

The vast majority of states have ethics commissions. New Mexico should too – one that has a mission of educating public officials about how to stay out of trouble and punishes them when they don’t. Right now in New Mexico, unless the conduct of a legislative-or executive-branch public official is so egregious that it’s a felony, there’s little accountability.

Want to change the culture? Put a system in place to educate our public officials about ethical conduct and punish them when they misbehave.

4 thoughts on “More officials prove need for an ethics commission

  1. Senator Garcia is one of the hardest working legislators we have. To allude to an accusation of a conflict of interest is unfair and biased. This is the senator that protects your battered women, your defenseless children and your animals that have no voice. Over the years Senator Garcia has brought many thousands of dollars to her district for all kinds of projects. She has been endorsed by the Las Cruces Sun-News, Emily’s List,NEA and AFSCME. These prestigous organizations would not endorse her if they didn’t feel she deserved it. We are 12 days away from the primary, our focus should be on Senator Garcia’s accomplishments, her leadership and the capitol outlay funding that has made Dona County a better place to live. I am confident that Senator Garcia will continue to fund those projects that are impotant to the people of her district when she is re-elected on June 3.

  2. Mr. Lyons should resign!!!!!!! How can he use the State Land Office lawyer for his personal problems? Plus you have his land deals of favoritism with developers.

  3. Why do we need an ethics commission when we have an Attorney General?
    We already have too many fiscal fat cats, and not enough action.