GOP lawmaker agrees to pay $500 fine in ethics case
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE — State Rep. Rebecca Dow has agreed to pay a $500 civil penalty for violating the Government Conduct Act as part of an interim settlement with the state Ethics Commission, putting potentially end to a case she fought so hard for nearly two years.
The settlement is not yet final. A retired judge serving as a hearing officer is expected to consider approving the deal on Wednesday.
If granted, it would end the most high-profile ethics case since voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 establishing New Mexico’s independent ethics agency.
Dow, who lost a bid this year to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee, said Friday she could not comment on the settlement until it is final.
But public records show she agreed to a settlement in late June agreeing to pay $500 for two violations of state law that limits when lawmakers can represent a client before a state agency.
The Government Conduct Act prohibits state legislators from assisting someone before a state agency unless the legislator is unpaid or working on behalf of a voter.
The law also includes an exception for legislators who deal with state agencies while “engaged in the exercise of their profession.” But in these cases, legislators cannot refer to their role as legislators.
The ethics case against Dow centered, in part, on allegations that she violated the law by representing an early childhood center she founded.
Dow is the founder and former CEO of AppleTree, a nonprofit organization that serves children and families in Sierra County. It derives most of its income from state grants and contracts, according to case documents.
As part of the lawsuit against Dow, Walker Boyd, general counsel for the state Ethics Commission, said Dow sent emails on behalf of AppleTree to the Department of public education and had submitted an invoice to AppleTree for services that included meeting with Cabinet secretaries to promote AppleTree — evidence, Boyd said, that she violated restrictions on when a lawmaker can represent a client before agencies of state.
He also said that Dow had, in some cases, referred to her position as a legislator by signing a “Rep Dow” email or using her legislative email address.
Dow, in turn, strenuously denied the allegations. In her own filings, she claims she only represented one constituent — AppleTree — in the same way that any lawmaker is allowed to represent the people of their district.
She has described herself as having volunteered her time for the group in recent years – rather than accepting payment – and claims she has not only complied with state law, but has also consulted with legislative staff on how to properly disclose their role with AppleTree.
Even so, she said, she voluntarily amended the financial disclosure documents to address concerns raised by ethics staff.
In January, Dow described ethics staff as “out of bounds” and said the agency “continues to invent new allegations of violations as old ones are dropped.”
Also that month, she said, “I publicly disclosed – overdisclosed – all the details of my work and a very modest payment for a major nonprofit in my district.”
Dow said Friday she could not comment.
“Until the settlement is approved and final, it is not appropriate to answer the substance of your questions,” she told the Journal.
The case unfolded as Dow sought re-election to the House in 2020 – when she defeated her Democratic opponent – and throughout this year as she campaigned for governor.
In the June primary, she finished second in a five-way race for the GOP nomination, with 15% of the vote.
Dow, a six-year-old Truth or Consequences lawmaker, is expected to leave the State House when her term expires before next year’s regular legislative session.
The ethics complaint was filed in September 2020 by Dow’s Democratic opponent that year, Karen Whitlock.
But Boyd, the general counsel, took on a prosecutor-like role after investigating the allegations and finding probable cause to support some of them.
The settlement would end the case. As part of the deal, Dow would drop some ongoing legal challenges it had filed as it fought the allegations.
Prior to the settlement, Dow had been scheduled for a three-day public hearing next week before retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan C. Torgerson, who serves as a hearing officer.
Torgerson must now consider settlement approval on Wednesday morning.
The State Ethics Commission has the authority to enforce state laws on campaign reporting, financial disclosures, lobbyists, and other matters.
Voters authorized its creation in 2018, and lawmakers later passed a bill outlining how it will work.
The seven-member commission began accepting ethics complaints in 2020 and only makes them public upon finding probable cause.