Changing New Mexico’s Culture of Corruption
Corruption. It’s everywhere you look. From the Governor’s office to a couple of guys in charge of buying batteries for Albuquerque’s city car fleet. The State Treasurer–two of them in a row were on the take. The President Pro Tempore of the State Senate stole millions. So many members of the Public Regulation Commission have legal problems it has become a rogue’s gallery. Public sector thieves have stolen the equivalent of entire school districts. The longest-serving Secretary of State is under indictment. There’s hardly a branch of state government or a municipality clean of the contagion.
During the past eight years we’ve suffered the worst public corruption in the history of New Mexico. No other time in our history has seen more money stolen, larger bribes paid, bigger pay-offs extorted or more public officials booked and fingerprinted.
What will it take to change the culture of corruption? Or is this a permanent condition in the Land of Enchantment?
After sitting through lectures in Chicago by a former IRS criminal investigator and a retired high-level FBI agent, I have a few ideas on the cure. Hey, they know corruption in the Windy City. Coming here to study corruption is like going to the British Museum to study Shakespearre. Here’s what I took away from two days of lectures by guys who made a career out of fighting crooks in state houses and city halls–thieves who stole more with a pencil than most robbers get waving a gun.
One, it will take checks and balances that work. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation must continue to stay active. The Feds are the best check on New Mexico’s corrupt and confident political class. The scale and complexity of these crimes is beyond the resources of the New Mexico Attorney General and local District Attorneys. Gary King has been the most active AG New Mexico has had in nearly two decades or more. He deserves a great deal of credit. He has brought more public corruption and fraud cases than several of his predecessors combined. But the Michael Montoya, Robert Vigil and Manny Aragon cases were in an entirely different league, and required a non-elected prosecutor, above and beyond the blow-back of New Mexico’s politics. Those sort of cases need a resourceful, strong prosecutor who can employ the enormous resources of the federal government. Let’s hope our new U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales, is as committed to fighting New Mexico’s plague of corruption as were the men who headed the office when it brought down Montoya, Vigil and Aragon.
Two, the New Mexico Attorney General must make fighting corruption a priority and receive the resources he requires.
Three, the New Mexico State Auditor must get more money to conduct more forensic audits. Too many crimes have escaped the pro forma audits that don’t even bother to seek the truth about how agencies spend public funds. The District III Housing Authority mess was missed entirely by auditors from Meyners & Co. The Jemez School District embezzlement was overlooked by incurious auditors from Accounting and Consulting Group LLP. We wasted our money on these outfits. Only a forensic audit revealed the depth of Aragon’s corruption. More forensic audits, please. Also, we need more surprise audits. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examimers, one of the two most effective tools for reducing losses from public corruption is surprise audits. I will discuss the other most effective preventive measure at the end of this post.
Four, we need more state employees to come forward. Another observation of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners is that most fraud and corruption is discovered by tips from people in the corrupt agency itself. Just over half of all public corruption cases nationwide were broken by such tips. Internal controls detected 27% of the cases, internal audits caught 21.7%, 11.9% were found by accident, 4.1% were found by external audit, and only 2.5% were reports to law enforcement.
This means state and local governments must encourage and reward tips. Public sector employees must have confidence that they will be protected. Leadership must inspire loyalty to the public interest above loyalty to party or patron. Leadership must create a culture of accountability that replaces the culture of corruption.
It’s not a step towards a cure. It’s just facing reality. We need to forget about an ethics code and ethics commission making any difference. About forty states have ethics commissions. They don’t make any difference. They just give the politicians cover. The key is electing people who are absolutely above reproach themselves and are committed absolutely to rooting out corrupt practices in all corners of government. That leads to the final step.
We can’t make any progress on fighting the culture of corruption unless we elect the right Governor and Lt. Governor. We need people who will clean house with no consideration of past political friendships, alliances and debts. We must have a clear message from the highest office in the state that a new day has dawned. A culture of resolute reform must replace the culture of corruption.
Such a culture has been lacking during the past eight years. Neither Bill Richardson nor Diane Denish have inspired state employees to stand against corruption. The signals from the Fourth Floor uniformly have been that politics has primacy over service to the public. Friends were remembered and richly rewarded Neither Richardson nor Denish have led by example, the most effective form of leadership and inspiration. We should not be surprised, therefore, that corruption in state government has gotten so bad.
Can we realistically hope that Denish will become a completely new person, rising above her history as a party chairwoman, standing now without compromise or equivocation against all forms of corruption? Can we expect her to take on her entrenched friends and allies who are part of the problem? What we’re hearing from state employees about Denish is not encouraging.
New Mexico Watchdog has received numerous comments and direct communications from frustrated, dispirited public employees who believe they have nowhere to turn in state government to report fraud and abuse. Yes, they can report all they want. But the experiences they have shared with us reflect only disappointment, followed by resignation. We have heard from several members of a group of employees from the Probation and Parole Division who went directly to Denish with a litany of complaints. According to several of them, instead of remedying the problems, Denish burned them by reporting them to their superiors. We have seen correspondence to and from Denish’s office to confirm their claims. Nothing changed in a very troubled state agency, and now employees write comments on this site speaking of nothing but hope for a change in leadership as a necessary precursor to any sort of meaningful reform.
There is also this to consider: both Denish and her running mate, Brian Colon, as Chairs of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, worked hard to elect and re-elect the very same crooks who have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in losses, and inflicted untold damage on public trust in government. We would certainly have more confidence in Mr. Colon if there was an inch of daylight between him and Richardson’s cronies who have profited during the present administration. Colon was treasurer of Richardson’s secretive slush fund, known as the Moving America Forward Foundation, a tax-deductible “charity” that has not disclosed how it raised and spent $1.7 million dollars. Fellow director with Colon of that shady operation was Anthony Correra, father of third-party placement fee king Marc Correra. Both father and son have fled the country to escape service of process of civil lawsuits brought to recover losses for taxpayers from Marc Correra-connected state investments gone sour to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
Colon, of course, knows who gave and how the money was spent. He was the treasurer. But he has elected to stand on the side of keeping Richardson’s secret secret forever.
And Denish, as we have reported here in a number of articles tracking her use of federal stimulus funds, has demonstrated her willingness to engage in some of the same malfeasance and abuse of public funds that has plagued state government under the two terms of the Richardson/Denish administration.
Does that mean that GOP gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez and John Sanchez, the Republican nominee for Lt. Governor, are the answer? That remains to be seen. The election season is really only beginning. We must await specific proposals from Martinez. We have to size her up.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examners is one of the world’s most respected organizations when it comes to studying public corruption. It has observed that, in addition to surprise audits, the other most effective measure to reduce losses from fraud and corruption is job rotation and mandatory vacations. Many frauds go on for years and years. Crooks are afraid to let someone else sit at their desks and see what they’ve been doing. Many cases are broken when a new set of eyes looks at the books and goes through the desk drawers. The simple injection of new blood reduces losses from fraud and deters corruption. That’s what these experts have observed over years of studying corruption across America and other countries. Their advice deserves our very careful consideration.
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