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Action by ethics board shows us why oversight is needed

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Walt Rubel
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Commentary:

State Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, who finished second in a five-person race for governor in the Republican primary election last month, has agreed to pay a $500 civil penalty to settle a bitter dispute with the State Ethics Commission, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

The dispute stems from a complaint filed by Dow’s Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, and highlights the challenges faced by both our unpaid legislators and our relatively new ethics commission to police a system where conflicts of interest are built into the process.

Like most members of the Legislature under the age of 70, Dow has another full-time job to pay the bills. She is the founder of a nonprofit educational center in Sierra County called Apple Tree, which receives funding from the state in both grants and contracts.

The inherent conflicts in that relationship are obvious. But, in New Mexico’s “citizen legislature,” Dow is just one of several lawmakers with financial ties to the government they oversee. House speaker Brian Egolf provided legal representation to Ultra Health, New Mexico’s largest medical cannabis company, in a lawsuit against the state at the same time he helped lead the legislative effort to pass recreational marijuana, according to a 2020 story in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Minority Leader Jim Townsend worked as a consultant for an oil and gas company. Five legislators were married to lobbyists.

State law recognizes these conflicts, and attempts to set boundaries. The State Ethics Commission, which was approved by voters in 2018, is charged with enforcing those boundaries.

Dow is accused of violating ethics rules by essentially serving as a lobbyist for Apple Tree and receiving payment for those services. And, she improperly included the title “Rep.” in correspondence with state education officials.

Voters knew about the allegations in 2020 and re-elected Dow anyway. She has defended her actions as accepting, “modest payment for an important nonprofit (Apple Tree) in my district.” She said she is unable to talk about the settlement until it is finalized.

The settlement is an important confirmation for the ethics commission, a seven-member board appointed by both majority and minority leaders in the Legislature that includes former Republican Governor and NMSU President Garrey Carruthers.

The ethics commission was passed despite the skepticism of Republican legislators who feared that the board’s investigations would be partisan. With so many potential conflicts of interest in the Legislature, it will be critical that the ethics commission is even-handed in the cases it brings forward, and that those investigative efforts end in success. Democrat Georgene Louis was fined $250 by the commission following her arrest for drunken driving.

A better solution would be to give those making laws in New Mexico both the salary and staff needed to perform those functions professionally.

Dow was required to give up the House District 38 seat that she has held for the past six years when she made her run for governor. Democrat Tara Jaramillo and Republican Sandy Hammack will vie for the seat in November. District 38 now stretches into Las Cruces as a result of redistricting.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com