In recent weeks, it’s become crystal clear that New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission is a mess.
Current Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. and his father, a former commissioner, are under indictment on felony charges related to misusing the state’s public financing system that include violating the elections code, tampering with evidence and, in the case of the younger Block, embezzlement.
Commissioner Carol Sloan is facing felony charges of aggravated burglary and criminal damage to property after she allegedly attacked another woman on July 14 and accused the woman of having an affair with her husband.
In 2007, a jury awarded $840,000 to a woman who accused Commissioner David King of sexually harassing her. It was the second time the state had to pay up because of sexual harassment allegations against King. In the early 1990s, the state paid $305,000 to settle harassment allegations made against him by three women when he was state treasurer.
Commissioner Sandy Jones recently placed on paid leave — and then reinstated — his office assistant after a complaint that her hiring violates state law because she has twice been convicted of felony crimes. Though I’m not one who believes felons don’t ever deserve another chance, this issue still raises some important questions, and the attorney general is looking into the situation.
And the PRC recently reopened a rate case involving a Las Cruces utility after a staff engineer was fired because of a potential conflict with the utility’s owner. Essentially, the PRC learned that the president of the utility, Stephen Blanco, had written checks adding up to almost $20,000 to Martin De La Garza, who had oversight of the utility’s situation until he was fired by the PRC.
Like the Blocks and Sloan, Blanco and De La Garza maintain they did nothing wrong, saying the payments were for work De La Garza’s father in law did for Blanco’s company. De La Garza has appealed his firing and says the situation is retaliation for his probes into potential misconduct by utilities and state officials. (The situation was reported on by the Albuquerque Journal on July 28, but the article is not online.)
Reflective of a larger problem
Of course, scandal at the PRC is nothing new. Do the names E. Shirley Baca, Eric Serna and Joe Ruiz ring a bell?
The point is this: State government in New Mexico has been plagued by scandal in recent years. The PRC is a microcosm of that scandal.
It makes sense that, in a corrupt political system, the PRC would be reflective of the larger problem. The PRC is one of the most powerful regulatory boards in the nation, governing all sorts of transactions and dealings in the business world. In a state in which pay to play, nepotism and other problems have been the norm for so long, why wouldn’t such an influential agency be plagued by scandal?
There are some good things happening at the PRC. It has cut its budget by $1.5 million a year, or 16 percent, largely by consolidating offices to reduce overhead costs. For the first time, the PRC has hired a private company to audit the way PNM obtains fuel and power as a way to ensure the cost of wasteful spending isn’t being passed on to consumers. The PRC plans to follow the PNM audit with reviews of the other energy companies that do business in New Mexico.
But clearly, there are also lots of issues. To deal with the situation, one blogger has suggested that PRC members be appointed, not elected. The only PRC member not involved in some type of controversy, Jason Marks, says it’s time to review how commissioners are selected and their qualifications, and says making the positions appointed might be a good idea. The Albuquerque Journal suggests forming a task force to consider what’s going on.
But the culture of corruption in New Mexico — not structural issues at the PRC — is the real problem.
NM needs an independent ethics commission
I’ve written this before, and I’ll probably write it again, but this is a perfect example of why New Mexico needs an independent ethics commission. The PRC has tried public financing, and it hasn’t yet worked (though prosecution of the Blocks might change that).
And in a state in which pay to play has been the norm, putting such a powerful regulatory board under the control of people appointed by the governor would only consolidate more power in the hands of one person and create more temptation for that one person to engage in pay to play.
We need an independent body with the mission of creating ethical standards and educating public officials on how to follow them, and with the teeth to investigate and publicly slap the wrists of those who violate those ethical standards.
Such a commission would not only put more pressure on public officials to be ethical but, because its findings of wrongdoing would be public, it would also put more pressure on the state’s enforcers — the attorney general and district attorneys — to pursue action against wrongdoers whose misdeeds rise to the level of criminal activity.
And it would empower voters by giving them more information about what their elected officials are really doing.
Many of New Mexico’s government leaders don’t want an ethics commission because it would change the way they do business. That is exactly why an ethics commission is necessary.