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.”
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.”
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.
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.