The ethics committee takes the first individual case

Sandoval County Administrative Building

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The State Ethics Commission has authorized its staff to take legal action against a former Sandoval County employee accused of illegally testifying last year at a property tax hearing .

This will be the commission’s first civil action against an individual and the third since the independent agency’s authority began last year.

The case centers on provisions in the Government Conduct Act prohibiting former government employees from leaving an agency and then representing clients before the agency on an issue they had worked on, or from being paid to represent anyone in front of the agency for a year. – a ban often referred to as a “revolving door” law.

At issue is the testimony of Gabriel Vargas, a former employee of the Sandoval County Appraiser Office who went to work for Double Eagle Property Tax Consultants.

The owner of the business said Vargas had done nothing wrong. He complied with the one-year ban and met other requirements of the law, his officials said.

But the State Ethics Commission, in a resolution passed last week, said it had reason to believe Vargas had violated the Government Conduct Act.

“Revolving door laws help ensure that government employees work only in the public interest,” Jeremy Farris, executive director of the commission, said Tuesday in a written statement to the Journal. The laws “are particularly important for government employees who assess property values, as property valuation affects funding for local governments, schools and community colleges.”

In a brief interview, Vargas said on Tuesday that he left the assessor’s office because he needed the flexibility to care for his daughter while she was undergoing cancer treatment, and not by intention malicious.

Double Eagle owner Scott Clark said he and Vargas had taken action to comply with the law, honoring the one-year work ban in Sandoval County.

“As a businessman in the Albuquerque community for forty years,” Clark said in a statement to the Journal, “I strive to run my business with integrity and always do the right thing. . “

One of the keys to the ethics dispute is a September 1, 2020 hearing before the Assessment Protests Board in Sandoval County.

This happened a year and a day or two after Vargas left the assessor’s office.

At the meeting, Vargas, who now works for Double Eagle, testified against his former colleagues and presented evidence in support of the proposed tax assessment reduction on an office building by the Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, according to court records.

The valuation board largely sided with Vargas and reduced the estimated value of the Presbyterian Healthcare Services property from about $ 14.1 million to $ 11.4 million. The change will reduce her annual tax bill by about $ 35,000, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by Sandoval County assessor Linda Gallegos.

Double Eagle property tax consultants had been hired by Presbyterian to protest the tax assessment.

Clark said the assessor’s office had incorrect information about the makeup of the building, a factor in the protest council from Vargas’ side.

“We did our job and got a fair and correct assessment for our client,” said Clark.

The Sandoval County assessor, however, disputes the reduced value in court, claiming that Vargas broke the law by participating in the hearing. He was a commercial appraiser assigned to the property when he was a county employee, according to the appraiser’s lawsuit, and had appraised the property in previous years.

The appraiser’s lawsuit, for example, alleges that Vargas had “seized” the value of the property for the previous tax year, in 2019, while he worked for the county and had access to county information on the property.

This work “clearly disqualified him from presenting testimony on exactly the same issues on behalf of” Presbyterian, Sandoval County attorneys said in a court file.

Vargas disputes this characterization of his work.

During the appraisal hearing, for example, Vargas said during his tenure in the county he did not measure or inspect Presbyterian property and did not make his own appraisal of it, according to court records. Any valuation he placed on the property for the previous year was under the direction of a supervisor, not his own appraisal, Vargas said.

Also, he said, a new county appraiser was assigned to the property in 2020 and set the value that was the subject of protest.

The revolving door ban in the Government Conduct Act permanently prohibits a former public servant from representing anyone on an issue in which the former employee has “had a personal and substantial involvement” during his tenure with the government. of the government.

The law also includes a broader one-year ban that prohibits ex-employees from being paid to represent anyone before the agency where they worked.

The goal, according to the Sandoval County lawsuit, is to insulate the government from undue influence by former employees.

The county contends that although Vargas testified a day or two after the year-long ban, he was clearly involved in working on the tax dispute before that date.

Regardless, the county’s appeal of the assessment decision – making allegations against Vargas – is pending in New Mexico’s 13th Judicial District.

The National Ethics Commission, for its part, is starting its own involvement.

On Friday, the commission authorized its staff to demand that Vargas and Double Eagle comply with the Government Conduct Act. The resolution also allows staff to take civil action.

The lawsuit can seek civil penalties and “disgorgement,” a legal term meaning that Vargas and Double Eagle should forgo illegal profits.

“The Commission has authorized this civil action,” Farris said, “to enforce New Mexico revolving door laws and to deter public corruption and the appearance thereof caused by illegal post-public employment. . “

The commission is an independent public body created following a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018. Its executive power began in 2020.

The agency deals with ethics complaints filed against state officials and others. He is also empowered to bring cases before the courts to enforce laws on ethics and electoral campaigns.

The commission’s other two civil actions targeted groups accused of spending money to influence the New Mexico election without properly disclosing their campaign fundraising activities.

Each case resulted in a settlement requiring financial disclosures.

The litigation may have a broader impact on property tax advisers.

In Tuesday’s statement, Clark said there are several other tax consulting firms that have employees of former appraisers working for them. Standard practice, he said, is that they do not work in the county where they have been employed for at least a year.

Clark said he hoped to settle the ethics action informally, but otherwise the company would seek legal damages “for harassment in order to put an end to this and for us to represent New Brunswick taxpayers. Mexico with their property tax problems in Sandoval County “.

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