Demesia Padilla investigation latest reminder of hole in public corruption law

Law taking public official benefits only applies to elected officials

Demesia Padilla
Demesia Padilla

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Even after a public official loses their job because of corruption in New Mexico, they still get to keep a big publicly funded benefit, their pension.

“The thought that someone can use their position of power to benefit monetarily and then go on and collect a pension is just wrong,” said Viki Harrison with nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause New Mexico. “And everybody knows it.”

In the years following former state senator Manny Aragon’s conviction for stealing millions from the state, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at cracking down on public corruption.

The 2012 legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, made it so that if an elected official is convicted of a felony related or connected to their public office, a judge can slap an additional fine of that official’s salary and fringe benefits from when the crime was first committed.

In the years since, that law has yet to be used.

The AG’s office declined to go after former Secretary of State Dianna Duran under that law saying it didn’t clearly apply in her case because she was caught taking campaign funds, not taxpayer dollars.

Last week, Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla resigned from her job amid an embezzlement and tax evasion investigation. If she’s ultimately charged and convicted, her pension would be safe because cabinet secretaries are appointed, not elected, positions.

The holes in the 2012 law have led to a push to expand it to other officials.

“It should apply to any public official,” said Harrison. “Anybody who’s getting paid by the public.”

Two proposals significantly strengthening the law, one by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, and another by Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, were introduced earlier this year. However, neither got a floor vote and died during the 30-day session.

Despite a budget crisis, Harrison hopes lawmakers make the issue a priority at next month’s 60-day session.

“We are never going to attract new businesses, we are never going to fix our economy unless we clean it up,” said Harrison.

Without changes, the 2012 law could apply to former state senator Phil Griego, who’s facing charges alleging he used his office to help approve a deal that led to him receiving a sizable commission.

A separate state law does strip judges of their pensions if they’re removed from office for misconduct.

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