Duran case demonstrates the importance of transparency

FOG Executive Susan Boe penned an opinion piece that was published in NMPolitics.net:

COMMENTARY: The recent allegations about Secretary of State Dianna Duran have pulled back the curtain on campaign finance reports — those pesky forms that candidates, lobbyists and political committees must file with the secretary of state (SOS) periodically to record their contributions and expenditures. At issue are fabricated expenses, omissions of campaign contributions from Duran’s report, and statements of “no activity.”

Without the reports, there would be scant evidence of the diversion of funds, since bank accounts are private affairs. But as far back as 1912, when New Mexico became a state, disclosure of this information was required to let the public know who was influencing whom.

In 1993, in the wake of another scandal, this one involving a state representative, the disclosure laws were beefed up. But it wasn’t until 2003 that candidates and others were required to file online and the SOS was required to place reports on its website for a broader look by the public. We were told technical snafus, caused by funding glitches, then plagued the SOS’s office, and legislators did not press to accelerate the process.

By and large, the reports during the 2000s were accessible only to those who could physically visit the SOS’s office and look at the paper files — reporters, political opponents and dedicated researchers. Some scanned reports were online but they were reportedly a nightmare — not downloadable, sortable or searchable, many of them handwritten.

Reporters, lawyers and those following that decade’s scandal, the Robert Vigil case, spent sleepless nights going through the cumbersome reports.

Since 2011 the Campaign Finance Information System has been posting the electronic records online, but the system has remained clunky. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) and Common Cause New Mexico have been advocating for a more up-to-date, searchable, sortable and downloadable site for several years.

I hope everyone can now see that this is not just a technical issue. Without information, citizens cannot hold their officials accountable and judge for themselves whether someone is violating either the spirit or the letter of the law.

A sound campaign finance information system

This year FOG supported HB 155, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Steinborn, which makes lobbyist information more accessible and requires archiving of information. As the current case illuminates, that is a crucial step in spotlighting past wrongdoing. The bill passed and was signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, and we have been working productively on its implementation with the staff of the SOS’s office.

Ironically, one of the first discrepancies noted by the attorney general’s (AG) charges against Duran involves a lobbyist contribution — recorded in the lobbyist’s own report, but allegedly diverted to Duran’s personal checking account and not recorded on her own record of contributions. None of that could come to light without a sound campaign finance information system, even one that had not yet been improved.

The current crisis for the office, of course, is magnified by the role of the SOS, who along with the AG, is the chief ethics enforcer when it comes to elections and campaign finances. Whether that is like allowing the fox to guard the henhouse is something for policymakers to decide. A number of proposals for ethics and elections commissions have already surfaced.

For 25 years, FOG has been the state’s leading advocate for transparency, and that includes information about campaign finance contributions and lobbyist information. The hallmark of a democracy is open government, conducted in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, in case anyone had any doubts, the current case is proof positive that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Susan Boe is executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.