Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ethics Reform: The Time is Now

In the past week three widely reported stories have reminded us of how far we still have to go to reverse the "pay to play" mentality in New Mexico that was so vividly recounted in the trials and conviction of former State Treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil. The first case this week was about former State Senator Manny Aragon, who pleaded guilty in federal court to various charges in connection with a scheme to defraud taxpayers of over $4 million dollars through phony vouchers in the building of the lavish Metro Court in Albuquerque a few years ago.

The second story was the hiring of Brian Schmidley, the son of UNM president David Schmidley. It had all of the markings of a typical case of nepotism, New Mexico style: a son whose qualifications were easily questioned in comparison with those who competed against him; a skirting of the nepotism laws through hair-splitting legalistic-sounding distinctions; and an effort to justify the hiring after getting caught. It seems doubtful to me Mr. Schmidley will actually take the job under these conditions, since his appearance would serve as a constant reminder of some of the darker tendencies at UNM in the past few years.

The third story, breaking just this morning, is about $1.4 million in taxpayer money going to a firm that paid $85,000 to PACs that would help Richardson promote his national agenda. The payments, according to the Albuquerque Journal, were made suspiciously close to the New Mexico Finance Authority's decision to grant CDR (the firm making the donations to the PACs)an agreement to help with bond issues related to the GRIP program. No contracts were signed and the agreement was rushed through by the NM Finance Authority, which is controlled largely by cabinet secretaries and other officials appointed by the Governor or highly subject to the Governor's influence.

These are not the only recent cases of questionable use of taxpayer funds. Just last year county officials in Sandoval county were accused to paying over $1 million in a no-bid contract won by a person with questionable credentials for a wireless internet network that was never built. Then there was the $17,000 bilingual education party held in Las Vegas, New Mexico and the $71,000 pork barrel funding Rep. Richard Vigil got for his wife, Roberta, the head of the West Las Vegas School District's bilingual education program, without consulting with school officials about other priorities, at a moment the School District was in financial trouble. Then there were the cases of NMSU paying out $220,000 out of its budget for former NMSU Provost Bill Flores to be deputy secretary of the Department of Education, a governor's appointment normally paying less than $100,000 out of the Governor's (not NMSU's) budget. A couple of years earlier there were reports the governor had put heat on the NMSU student regent to vote to hire Flores as President of NMSU. She refused to play ball and he wasn't hired. Then there was the case of State Land Office rushing through a sweetheart deal for Philip Philippou, a developer in Dona Ana County who had spent about $26,000 in campaign contributions to Lyons, for providing the county with a master plan for a 4200-acre parcel of land. Then there was the case of NMSU President Michael Martin receiving an anonymous gift of about $7000 per month, laundered through the NMSU Foundation toward the purchase of an expensive house, despite the fact that NMSU has a nicely appointed house that is rent-free for the NMSU president. Then there was the Housing Authority scandal, which began in 2006 and is still not over. Here the Speaker of the House was accused of protecting his friend, Smiley Gallegos, a low-income housing patron, who, among other things provided a Metro Court Judge in Albuquerque a rent-free house intended for low income families, stuck taxpayers with the bill from failed questionable ventures, and, somehow, escaped accountability. That scandal precipitated an unsuccessful challenge to the Speaker from Majority Leader Ken Martinez. These are only some of the corruption scandals of the past two years.

While not all of these actions may have been illegal, some of them clearly were, and they certainly do not reflect the kind of judgment New Mexicans have a right to expect from government officials. Instead, they reflect an anything-goes attitude that, largely unpunished, has grown worse and worse in recent years. The state senate, in particular, has failed to pass an ethics reform bill and, just this morning, the Albuquerque Journal reported Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez and Senate Minority Leader Stewart Ingle both are refusing to acknowledge the need for reform.

Fortunately, the South Valley has elected legislators who have not automatically caved in on ethics reform. Rep. Joseph Cervantes was punished by Speaker Lujan when he backed Ken Martinez' bid to become Speaker, largely in response to the feeling it was time for a change in attitude toward ethics. Sen. Mary Kay Papen, as Chair of the Oversight Committee of the Senate Finance Authority, will be in a position to ask pointed questions about the GRIP scandal that broke this morning. She is not known for caving in to political pressure from above, nor is Rep. Mary Helen Garcia.

Bottom line: it is time for a serious approach to what appears to be a crime wave in high places. Citizens should keep informed and demand serious reform.

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