Jennings’ actions prove need for ethics commission

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Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

The Senate president pro tem has inappropriately used government resources to campaign twice in the last week. I wish the Legislature and governor would wake up to the fact that an independent ethics board is needed to address such conduct.

Sen. Tim Jennings says his campaign re-election announcement was “inadvertently” sent out through a state government e-mail address earlier this week and he “will ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Roswell Democrat, who is the Senate president pro tem, made that statement in a message sent from his personal e-mail account on Wednesday, a day after I authored a commentary slamming him for using government resources to campaign.

In short, a government staffer sent out Jennings’ re-election announcement from a government e-mail address and included contact information for the Senate President Pro Tem office. That’s never appropriate.

Here’s what Jennings had to say in his Wednesday e-mail:

“The email that was sent out regarding my re-election effort was inadvertently sent out through a state email address. However inadvertent, it was inappropriate and I take full responsibility. I will ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Inadvertent indeed.

Jennings did the same thing last week

This isn’t the first time Jennings has used government resources to campaign. In fact, he’s done it twice in the past week. He failed to mention that in his e-mail claiming the situation with the re-election announcement was “inadvertent.”

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I didn’t know about the other instance when I wrote my first column on Tuesday, but I’ve since learned that the same government staffer sent out a letter authored by Jennings on Friday urging voters in Roswell to approve a gross receipts tax increase in Tuesday’s election. You can read the letter here.

The government staffer sent Jennings’ letter from her government e-mail address to a Roswell economic development official, who then distributed it further.

That was as inappropriate as the staffer sending out Jennings’ re-election announcement. Campaigning is campaigning, whether it’s for your own re-election effort or a local ballot question. And it’s nothing state government, using public money, has any business doing.

Money appropriated for the Office of the Senate President Pro Tem should be spent on business relating to that office, not Jennings’ political career or his endorsement of an issue Roswell voters are considering.

Jennings has been in the Senate since 1979. It isn’t like he doesn’t have a campaign fund he can use for such communication. In fact, his last finance report showed his campaigning having more than $43,000 on hand.

He has the money to do this properly, and I don’t really think he’s intentionally trying to rip off the public. So what’s the issue?

The dynamics have changed

I’m giving Jennings the benefit of the doubt in assuming he wasn’t being disingenuous when he failed to mention, in his apology, the letter endorsing the tax increase.

I think Jennings simply doesn’t understand.

After all, he’s been in the Senate for a long time. He comes from a different era in New Mexico when the good ol’ boy system was stronger. The Legislature has changed dramatically in the last few years.

A more aggressive media, more active political committees and nonprofits, and especially the advent of webcasting mean New Mexicans have greater access to state government than perhaps at any other time in history. This is, after all, a state whose founders designed its Legislature to meet primarily in the dead of winter in a town located in the mountains. From the start, the Roundhouse wasn’t intended to be accessible to the masses.

That’s why official webcasting is one of the most important structural changes in the Legislature’s history. It’s making the Legislature more accessible than it’s ever been.

There are some longtime members, including Jennings, who don’t seem to know what to do with the new reality of greater scrutiny and the expectations and standards of conduct that come with it.

Judiciary has a commission; why not other branches?

That’s why we need an independent ethics board or commission to help educate lawmakers on appropriate conduct and, when necessary, punish violators. They don’t police themselves. In fact, many of them don’t understand the need.

I wish Gov. Susana Martinez had a plan for dealing with ethical missteps like these by Jennings. But she, like many legislators, opposes the creation of an ethics commission.

Martinez said in her first State of the State address that corruption “is a crime, not an ethical dilemma.” She’s wrong. Both contribute to the culture of corruption in New Mexico, and I’ve criticized her in the past for taking such an oversimplified stance.

Sending out one or two campaign e-mails from a government account because you don’t understand that it’s not OK shouldn’t be a crime. But it is an ethical problem that needs to be addressed.
We have a Judicial Standards Commission to police ethical misdeeds in that branch of government. But in the legislative branch, we have an Ethics Committee that does nothing because its members are all legislators. And we don’t have any board policing ethical problems in the executive branch.

The other branches of government should have as strong an ethics board as the judiciary – a board tasked with teaching officials like Jennings about acceptable standards of conduct and, when necessary, calling out violators.

To his credit, former Gov. Bill Richardson pushed for the creation of an independent ethics commission, but lawmakers stopped it from happening. Since Martinez was elected, there’s been little talk of another push to create such a board.

That’s a shame, because officials like Jennings clearly need to be educated about ethical conduct, and to be held to account for breaking those standards.

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2 thoughts on “Jennings’ actions prove need for ethics commission

  1. Heath please tell us what you think an “independent ethics commission” would look like?  You offer up the example of the Judiciary and we all know what a total disaster that is?  You have written about it when it comes to Judges cutting deals behind closed doors?

    Heath an ethics commission would be a total disaster, period!  How do you find someone who is non partisan that even cares enough to get involved with such a thing as an ethics commission?  Heck we are still electing people with less then 50% of the population showing up to the polls! After the fancy slogans you still have to put the ideas into practice! 

    I wonder why it is ok for the Rio Rancho Schools to use the Emergency Phone Notifications System to tell me to get out and vote for a Bond issue or to have teachers tell my kids to tell us to vote for it?  How about the Rio Rancho Public Schools having a paid lobbyist in Santa Fe while they are laying off teachers and can’t get enough books in the classroom?  Yet somehow it is wrong for an elected official to let everyone know where they stand on the issue.  I think you are wrong on these two examples from Senator jennings, far be it from me to defend him but I think this is wrong.  It is news when the President Pro Tem is running for re-election and an official announcement from him is acceptable in my opinion.  Now asking for campaign dollars is wrong and should not be allowed, even campaigning shouldn’t be allowed but a news worthy event announcing your re-election should be.  I also feel it is ok to allow a sitting State Senator to tell his constituents where he stands on local issues!  If he is letting the ED person know he supports the issue that is fine.  I believe there are far greater issues that should be brought under control and I know many are going to talk about the slippery slope but that is a false argument in my opinion.  Because one action can lead to another action is no reason to make all the actions illegal!  If you do not want to allow people to campaign then outlaw the act of campaigning, news worthy items deserve the use of staff in my opinion. 

  2. If the New Mexico’s Ethics Commission legislation (HB 151) law had passed, Senator Jennings’ recent campaign actions using state resources could still have been ignored.
    Such exemptions and other limitations of the bill were pointed out in a thorough and well written review by Erin McSherry, entitled “THE PROPOSED STATE ETHICS COMMISSION ACT:  REFORM FOR NEW MEXICO’S WILD WEST POLITICS, OR SIMPLY A MIRAGE?”
    McSherry states: “. . . the commission would be prohibited from investigating misconduct related to campaign advertising.”
    McSherry later states:  “While the creation of a new agency with broad jurisdiction and independence from the existing branches may seem attractive when corruption appears rampant in all government branches, if the effort to create such an agency is actually more of a distraction from, rather than a solution to, the state’s real problems, it is a mirage.”
    This is why strong ethics laws are needed. If elected officials and state employees are to be held to true account for such actions, why go through the time, cost and effort to create a restricted commission with limited authority?  NM is one of nine states without an ethics commission – it’s time we step up to the plate and enact a good one.
    Here’s the website if anyone is interested in reading the full review:
    http://lawlibrary.unm.edu/nmlr/39/3/08_mcsherry_proposed.pdf