Column: Conflicts are pervasive, accepted in legislative system

Heath Haussamen

New Mexico’s lawmakers are the only in the nation who aren’t paid. Many have day jobs on top of volunteering in our Legislature.
With this system, New Mexicans have created a structural problem: Unless we pay a reasonable salary, we can’t expect lawmakers to always avoid conflicts between their jobs and legislative duties.
But we can demand that they try to avoid conflicts. When they can’t, we should expect them to be honest with us about it.
Tim Keller sidestepped one conflict when he was a state senator. Laguna Development Corporation, which runs two casinos west of Albuquerque owned by Laguna Pueblo, lobbied against a proposed gaming compact between the state and the Navajo Nation in 2014. Laguna argued the market was saturated.
The Senate rejected the Navajo compact. Without giving much explanation, Keller, an Albuquerque Democrat, recused himself from that vote.
At the time Keller was working for California-based Blue Stone Strategy Group, which advises tribal communities on issues including economic development and governance.
Keller has never publicly disclosed a list of clients. But as reported on Aug. 24, a document given to me by a former Blue Stone employee, which appears to be a Blue Stone client list, includes Laguna Pueblo in 2010 and Laguna’s utility agency in 2013. It also lists the Navajo Nation in 2012.
However, in 2011 Keller said about Laguna Pueblo, “They’re not a client of mine.” He told me the same thing on July 29.
Keller was right to recuse himself from voting on the Navajo compact. “I just felt that it would be best to not pick a side because I’d worked with some of the folks that could be impacted,” Keller, who is now state auditor, told me in July.
Unfortunately, Keller apparently didn’t employ similar logic in another situation.
As a state senator Keller repeatedly criticized the Martinez Administration’s awarding of a 25-year lease to The Downs at Albuquerque to operate a casino and racetrack at the state fair grounds. He accused Republican Gov. Susana Martinez of pay-to-play.
The state fair grounds are located in the Senate district Keller represented. His constituents had a direct interest in The Downs deal.
So did Laguna Pueblo. Even as he pushed for an attorney general investigation into The Downs deal, Keller didn’t mention Blue Stone’s apparent tie to the losing bidder – Laguna Development, the same company that fought the proposed Navajo compact.
It was in the context of The Downs deal that Keller claimed Laguna Pueblo wasn’t a client.
I understand the difficulty of balancing a job that requires client confidentiality and a legislative position that demands disclosure. Many policymakers – Democrat and Republican – fail to reveal conflicts. I’m not accusing Keller or Laguna Pueblo of corruption.
I’m singling out Keller because, as auditor, he’s responsible for policing the ethics of other government officials. His past failure illustrates a cancer in our system – a pervasiveness and acceptance of conflicts.
We need to demand that our lawmakers avoid or at least disclose conflicts. We also need to design a better system that discourages conflicts.
When they’re doing legislative work, we deserve to know our lawmakers are acting in the interest of their constituents, not their employers. Our current system gives us no such assurances.
Haussamen runs, a news organization devoted to hard-hitting, fair exploration of politics and government. Reach him at or on Twitter @haussamen.