by Jon Decker


From the Santa Fe New Mexican:


In the Land of Enchantment, good governance, transparency and accountability are not just idealistic pursuits; they form the bedrock of our state’s democracy.


At the Viante Foundation, we believe greater transparency in government is necessary to improve decision-making, reduce corruption and increase accountability for how taxpayer money is spent. A recent investigation by my organization has raised concerns about potential lapses in these foundational principles within our state’s Attorney’s General Office.


Our findings come on the heels of the State Ethics Commission’s newly issued advisory opinion which affirms that contracts entered into on a contingency basis — such as the ones entered into by former Attorney General Hector Balderas — are subject to the procurement code.


Through the state Inspection of Public Records Act, we sought to uncover and bring to light certain actions and decisions by former New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.


Unmasking a questionable investigation


In July, the Viante Foundation had set its sights on understanding the rationale and findings of Balderas’ decision to opt out of a national opioid settlement and instead retain two law firms with which he had close financial ties. New Mexico, under the leadership of Balderas, opted out of a national opioid settlement, favoring an autonomous investigation. The investigation was spearheaded by two law firms with close monetary ties to Balderas: Robles, Rael & Anaya and Baron & Budd. These entities had poured over $57,000 into Balderas’ campaign coffers since his first campaign for public office.


More startling is the revelation that the compensation for these law firms was disproportionately higher than other states where law firms did similar work. An astonishing $148 million in attorneys fees was disbursed — nearly three times the rate of the average states.


‘Audit Rule’ and its implications


Several groups previously filed formal complaints and called for an investigation into the relationship between Balderas’s office and Robles, Rael & Anaya alleging potential violations of the Government Conduct Act and Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. They said, “These business arrangements appear to violate state law that prohibits Conflicts of Interest and Favored Treatment as well as Procurement & Contracting Improprieties. The evidence represents millions of dollars of suspected misuse and abuse of taxpayer funds.”


Viante’s public records requests to get insights into the ensuing state auditor’s investigation of the Attorney General’s Office were met with resistance, invoking the “Audit Rule.” This rule effectively barricades the public from the outcomes of such investigations, shrouding the details in mystery and leaving New Mexicans in the dark about the relationship betweenBalderas and the private law firms he hired to conduct state business, the thoroughness of the investigation into that relationship, and ultimately, how their tax dollars are used.


Broad contracts, potential conflicts of interestWe also took a closer look at the contracts initiated by Balderas and the firms that helped fund his campaigns, including Robles, Rael & Anaya. Two stood out with their vaguely defined scopes of work. One contract seemed to grant carte blanche to probe any entity in the state for supposed violations of consumer and/or environmental laws.


Another contract, while more industry-specific towards the auto insurance sector, was similarly ambiguous.


These revelations are not to imply that these contracts are unprecedented. Indeed, other law firms have been beneficiaries of similar arrangements. However, juxtaposed against the backdrop of campaign contributions, it prompts a deeper look into the appropriateness of such contracts from a taxpayer perspective — a look the “Audit Rule” denied to taxpayers.


The path forward


It is imperative for the government to operate with accountability to its citizens, with clear intentions and full transparency. The notion of attorneys general or law firms setting forth on arbitrary investigations without a well-defined objective is laden with potential ulterior motives and rewards political ax-grinding at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.


As the State Ethics Commission recently affirmed, contingency contracts such as the ones Balderas engaged in are subject to the procurement code, and we believe that the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.


In light of the Ethics Commission’s findings, it is imperative the State Auditor’s Office review the appropriateness of invoking the “Audit Rule” to block the release of the internal investigation between Hector Balderas and private law firms.


For New Mexico — and indeed for any democracy — to thrive, it’s crucial that governance is not only transparent but also beyond reproach. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to demand clarity, fairness and honesty in all governmental affairs.