Column: We must end New Mexico's culture of corruption

Heath Haussamen
The Daily Times

Dianna Duran pledged to give New Mexicans "a scandal-free Secretary of State's Office."

"This campaign is about working to restore the confidence and trust," Duran told me months before she was first elected secretary of state in 2010.

Months before that, Duran deposited a $600 check into her personal account that her campaign issued to Sean Davis of Tularosa for "equipment & work on campaign," the attorney general claims. Duran allegedly forged Davis' signature. Investigators say Davis didn't work for Duran, endorse the check, or receive the money.

Between 2010 and 2014, Duran allegedly committed dozens of crimes, using close to $10,000 in campaign funds to keep her personal bank account in the black while gambling at New Mexico casinos. Duran's attorney says she'll plead not guilty.

Regardless, Duran joins a long list of public officials in New Mexico — Democrats and Republicans — who have lost the public's trust. Some examples:

A Senate president, Manny Aragon, was convicted of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money. A state Treasurer, Michael Montoya, was convicted of extortion. Another treasurer, Robert Vigil, was convicted of attempted extortion. Former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. was convicted of fraud, embezzlement, and elections-law violations.

I've written about others who weren't charged with crimes but acted unethically. Former Gov. Bill Richardson's scandals were many. Former Sens. Phil Griego, Leonard "Lee" Rawson, Shannon Robinson, Mary Jane Garcia and Joe Carraro, and Rep. Richard Vigil, are among the lawmakers who engaged in unethical behavior.

Former Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, now a PRC member, bypassed his own bidding process to lease state land to a campaign contributor. Former Attorney General Gary King was a landlord to a state agency while the state's top cop.

New Mexico's system encourages such conflicts of interest. We're the only state that doesn't pay lawmakers, so many have other jobs. We're also one of a handful of states with no ethics commission to set standards and hold officials accountable.

There seems to be no end to the scandal. Last week, KOB-TV reported that Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas failed to report thousands of dollars in contributions on his campaign finance reports.

There are lots of good people in government. Many are working to avoid conflicts. Republican state Rep. Jim Dines doesn't take money from political committees or lobbyists. Dines and Democratic Rep. Bill McCamley reject most gifts from lobbyists.

But our government has a plague. Corruption hurts economic development and creates other problems.

We've been prosecuting public officials for a decade. We've approved piddly, incremental reforms. We're still plagued by corruption.

Some policymakers want real change but as a whole state government still resists it.

We need to push our government to embrace widespread, systemic reform. Among proposals worth considering are paying legislators and enacting term limits, along with better accountability and transparency laws and beefed-up penalties for wrongdoing.

If we advocate for change, officials who resist are part of the problem and should be replaced. We must end our culture of corruption.

Haussamen runs NMPolitics.net, a news organization devoted to hard-hitting, fair exploration of politics and government.