“Corruption is a crime, not an ethical dilemma,” Gov. Susana Martinez said during her recent State of the State Address. And she has some strong ideas for combating corruption-related crime.
But what about misdeeds that aren’t crimes? There are all sorts of shenanigans in government that aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be prosecuted as crimes – and Martinez’s plan for cleaning up state government is sorely lacking when it comes to addressing such issues.
For example, when Martinez was the district attorney in Doña Ana County, an annual audit found that her office wasn’t withholding taxes from the pay of employees who used state-owned vehicles to commute to work. The IRS requires such withholdings, because the use of government vehicles for commuting is a form of compensation.
After the audit identified the problem, the situation was corrected.
Was this corruption? No evidence has been presented to suggest that. Should it have been prosecuted as a crime? No. But should Martinez and her office have known better? Absolutely.
Still, I’ll call this failure a simple mistake – one that an auditor caught, so, in this case, the system worked.
But dozens of government agencies in New Mexico don’t complete required annual audits, in violation of a state law that has no teeth. It’s one of many holes in the system that allows unethical activity to continue undetected.
Tolerance of unethical behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity allows mischief to fester, and it eventually grows into the culture of corruption that has made headlines so often in recent years.
And Martinez has laid out no plan for structural reforms to stop such mischief. She simply says she won’t tolerate it in her administration.
Even if she lives up to that pledge, there’s a big problem with such logic: Martinez will be in office, at most, eight years. What if the next governor, like so many who have come before, does tolerate, or even engages in misdeeds that don’t rise to the level of crimes?
In addition, what about all the government agencies that aren’t under Martinez’s control?
State police unit would help
Martinez’s primary proposal this legislative session to combat corruption is her plan to create a state police unit assigned to investigate public corruption.
That’s a fantastic idea. I covered an issue years ago in which the state auditor referred a special audit of Doña Ana County government to law enforcement. After being passed around – Martinez had to give it up because of a conflict of interest – the state police and First Judicial District Attorney essentially did nothing with it.
The state auditor had identified a procurement code violation his office thought might have been intentional. That issue was never thoroughly investigated because the probe didn’t find its way into the hands of anyone who asked the deeper question: Why would county commissioners have intentionally violated the procurement code to steer a contract to a certain architect?
A state police unit focused on asking such questions – and trained to investigate such issues – might have been very helpful in the case of the Doña Ana County procurement code violation.
More is needed
But Martinez knows from her experience as district attorney that there are misdeeds that aren’t criminal but still require attention. When scandals tainted the judiciary in Doña Ana County years ago, Martinez worked with the state’s Judicial Standards Commission to help clean things up.
Among the judges who left the bench during that time were one accused of sexual harassment and another who had run-ins with a court interpreter who beat her sister out for a court contract. Those aren’t criminal issues. But there were certainly ethical problems.
Thank goodness the Judicial Standards Commission exists to help clean up the judiciary.
And yet Martinez opposes the creation of a similar ethics commission to keep an eye on the executive and legislative branches, saying it would be nothing more than “politicians appointing other politicians to review the conduct of politicians.” In addition, her proposed budget would leave the state auditor – an official charged with weeding out ethical misdeeds – with less funding next year than his office has this year. That further reduces the auditor’s influence to pressure state agencies that aren’t completing annual audits.
In other words, Martinez has proposed no structural changes to help weed out misdeeds that aren’t criminal. Just trust her, she says. She won’t tolerate shenanigans.
Imagine if the last governor had said that. Martinez would have joined many of us in laughing out loud.
Not good enough, governor. The state needs structural reforms – not just good intentions.