Ethics bill blends transparency, protections
Aim is for commission to be authority on ethics, tough overseer for potential abusers

BY REP. DAYMON ELY

CORRALES DEMOCRAT

AND HEATHER FERGUSON

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMON CAUSE NEW MEXICO

We read with interest the Albuquerque Journal Editorial on House Bill 4.. HB 4 would establish a robust, transparent and fair ethics commission.. We want the public to know that our goal is to have a process that restores the public's confidence in our public officials and advances the objective of an ethically run government.

Under the bill, the commission will have seven members, an executive director, a general counsel and hearing officers. The general counsel is charged with investigating every complaint. If the complaint is frivolous or unsubstantiated, it will be dismissed. If there is probable cause, it will go before hearing officers for a decision, with a potential appeal to the entire commission.

The concern expressed by the Journal is that the process is not transparent enough.. We understand and appreciate those concerns.. And we have worked hard to provide as much transparency in the system as possible while still supporting other goals.

The entire process is transparent unless the commission finds that the complaint is frivolous or unsubstantiated. These findings happen at the beginning of the process. All hearings and appeals are open to the public.

Even if the complaint is deemed frivolous or unsubstantiated, the complainant or the respondent can make the complaint, response and the decision available to the public. The complainant's ability to disclose the complaint, response and decision is a check on the commission. If the complainant thinks the commission is biased, public disclosure keeps the commission accountable to public review. The respondent can also release the decision to clear his / her name.

However, the commission itself cannot make frivolous or unsubstantiated complaints public. There are two reasons for this. First, we want to encourage all ethical complaints. The commission can sort them out. But we particularly want to encourage those people who might be reluctant to file complaints because they have no animus toward the public official, don't know if there is a violation and may not want the complaint to be made public unless there is something to be pursued. We want that complaint. We put the power in the complainant's hands. If the commission dismisses the complaint and the complainant disagrees, the complainant can release it - shine a light on it.

Second, we don't want the commission used for political purposes. That is why the commission itself is authorized to release to the public only complaints that are found to be worthy of prosecution. The complainant can go on social media and to the press but should not be allowed to abuse our commission for purely nefarious political purposes.

We recognize there will be criticism from all sides - those who want complete transparency and those who want none. This bill works a logical balance based on what should be shared goals of encouraging complaints, providing transparency, being tough on bad actors while at the same time providing due process for those accused of wrongdoing.

It is our hope the commission will be respected as an authority on ethics and a tough overseer for those persons who would abuse our trust.

As this bill moves forward, we are asking for your attention to the details. The bill, as now written, is a solid effort.