Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, who was the first candidate for lieutenant governor
to release an ethics plan, today breached one of the common-sense rules of public office: Don't use your official letterhead for campaign purposes.
Members of the press received a news release titled "Sheriff Solano Endorses Undersheriff Garcia
," in which the term-limited sheriff does exactly that. The problem is that the release came from his county-paid executive assistant's official email address and then the release was promoted through the official Santa Fe County Nixle alert system
set up by the sheriff's office to communicate important public safety issues to the public.
Using Twitter, SFR pointed out to the sheriff that seemed like a violation of ethics principles, if not ethics laws.
Here's an excerpt from the dialogue that followed:
DaveMaass: Your county-paid executive assistant just sent a release about you endorsing the undersheriff. Doesn't that cross the line?
GregSolano: I am endorsing him as the sheriff. I am an elected official. it is different than a reg gov. employee.
Votergirl (SFR Editor Julia Goldberg): actually it's not different. You're using taxpayer $ for political activity.
GregSolano: everything an elected official does is either political or they are accused of doing it for political reasons.
GregSolano: when the gov endorsed obama did u leave out the fact it was the gov? & not just bill richardson?
haussamen (blogger Heath Haussamen): I don't think the governor used government staffers and taxpayer dollars to make his political endorsement.
GregSolano: so r u saying u never called the gov office and talked to paid staff about political issues?
Votergirl: I think it's a slippery slope, sheriff. Is it OK for you to fund raise for him from the sheriff's office? Or for yourself?
GregSolano: no of course its not okay to fund raise from the office and the extrapolations from this news release to that is still a stretch.
We're all a bit shocked that Solano couldn't see the issue behind it. He doesn't have to take just SFR' word for it. There's also the New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act:
10-16-3. Ethical principles of public service; certain official acts prohibited; penalty.
A. A legislator, public officer or employee shall treat the legislator's, public officer's or employee's government position as a public trust. The legislator, public officer or employee shall use the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest and not to obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests incompatible with the public interest.
Now, technically, that doesn't apply to folks running for or currently in county office. However, seeing that Solano's running for statewide office, he may want to familiarize himself with the law, as vague as it is. The argument could be made that endorsing his undersheriff is in the public interest.
But that's still a pretty weak defense.
"Obviously, as a general rule, it's inappropriate to make an endorsement using any sort of official letterhead or as part of his official duties," Steve Allen, executive director for the pro-ethics reform nonprofit Common Cause New Mexico
, tells SFR. "But I can't say there's anything illegal about it or that's there's a law preventing this."
Most states have legislation specifically banning this behavior, as National Conference of Legislatures State Legislatures' Center for Ethics in Government
Director Peggy Kerns tells SFR.
"It's a pretty strong standard on the Congressional, state and local levels that you can't use [government property and position] for campaign purposes," Kerns says. "It has nothing to do with the qualifications of the deputy sheriff or the sheriff's right to endorse him. You just can't do it on the public dollar."
Solano, via Twitter, points out that sending the press release only took minutes of his assistant's time and that the Nixle service doesn't cost the county a dime.