In late September 2018, New Mexico Ethics Watch (NMEW) released its third Financial Disclosure Act report, Third Time, No Charm: Continuing Issues with the Financial Disclosure Act. The report detailed lack of enforcement of the Act, lack of compliance with the Act, administrative shortcomings, and confusion about the requirements of the Act
While the report presents a roadmap for reform of the Financial Disclosure Act, a way to provide the level of information and transparency New Mexico’s citizens have been calling for from public officials, it also provides a snapshot of how cabinet secretaries, state legislators and candidates for the New Mexico House of Representatives complied (or not) with the Act’s requirements in 2018.
NMEW believes the annual financial disclosure statements public officials file, and the statements filed upon disclosure of candidacy, could be an incredible tool for voters in making educated, wise decisions about whom they will choose to represent them, in whom they will place their trust. But right now, given the scant requirements of the Act, the confusion surrounding what is being asked for by the Act and the form, the repetition of careless mistakes and missing information, and the lack of education and enforcement, the provided statements do not rise to that level. Even a cursory review of NMEW’s report, with snapshots of information provided by public officials on the forms and an analysis of the problems with the form, will reveal that truth. If one really digs into the report, one will be left with the realization and feeling, as NMEW was, that we can and must do better – that smart, caring, ethical people can find the will and the way to do right by the public and reform the Financial Disclosure Act so that it truly serves the public.
One of the aspects of the Financial Disclosure Act is that it requires the Secretary of State to educate public officials on compliance with the Act’s requirements, prior to meting out penalties for noncompliance. NMEW supports this aspect of the law. Unfortunately, and again, as can be confirmed by a cursory look at NMEW’s report, the education is lacking. What we’ve experienced recently is the following pattern: a lack of administrative review of financial disclosure statements by the Secretary of State, the enforcement agency; reporting mistakes and omissions being made by public officials; discovery of the mistakes and omissions by an intrepid reporter or observant political opponent, not the enforcement agency; correction of the mistakes and omissions by the public official; and acceptance of the correction by the Secretary of State. What that means for the public is that, currently, the information provided on each financial disclosure statement may not be correct or complete. How can the public trust what is presented on each statement, when there is a lack of education, oversight, review, administration and enforcement? So, the public trust in officials and institutions is further eroded. That may be what the public “accepts” or tolerates – business as usual, that’s what “they” do, that’s politics, etc. – but it is clearly not what the public wants, based on the overwhelming support that has led to the constitutional amendment creating an independent state ethics commission being on the ballot this November.
One of the findings of NMEW, while spending six months collecting data and undertaking research for the report, was that, as of the late-September publication, there was no financial disclosure statement in the Secretary of State’s database (https://portal.sos.state.nm.us/FinancialDisclosure/search.aspx) for 7 out of 29 cabinet secretaries, and for 5 candidates appearing on November’s general election ballot, running for State Representative. This is an important finding, because the Financial Disclosure Act provides that: 1) for a state agency head, filing a required financial disclosure statement is a condition of holding an appointed position; and 2) for candidates, the failure or refusal to timely file the required financial disclosure statement will result in the candidate’s name not being printed on the general election ballot.
Fortunately, following publication of NMEW’s report, the statements of 5 of the 7 cabinet secretaries and 4 of the 5 candidates, whose statements had previously not been available to the public, now appear in the financial disclosure statement database. Unfortunately, there is still one candidate for the State House (Joan Marentes, District 25) whose statement does not appear in the database and two acting secretaries (Ned Fuller, General Services Department; and Erin Thompson, Department of Workforce Solutions) for whom no financial disclosure statement can be found in the database. How can the public review the financial information of this candidate and these public officials? The public cannot. We can do better.
While the current Secretary of State is to be commended for once again publishing public officials’ statements online, absent review and oversight of the statements, compliance requirements education, and enforcement, the action is insufficient to permit the public to trust the information disclosed within the statements.
In the near future, NMEW will once again review compliance with Financial Disclosure Act requirements for members of boards and commissions. NMEW will continue to conduct annual reviews of compliance with the Act by all public officials. Regardless of November’s vote on the constitutional amendment creating an independent state ethics commission, NMEW will work with the public, legislators and advocates to reform the Financial Disclosure Act so that the public can trust the information required to be provided in the financial disclosure statements filed by public officials, and use that information to make educated, wise decisions when voting.