Bill would ban multiple reimbursements for legislators
One New Mexico lawmaker has a plan to end the legislative double dip.
It may have seemed obvious that legislators should not take multiple reimbursements for the same business trip, but the state attorney general in November said doing so was not a crime.
Now Rep. Nate Gentry, right, has filed a bill to expressly prohibit double dipping on travel expenses.
Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said his proposal was triggered by the case of Ray Begaye, who in November lost his seat in the state House of Representatives after a travel scandal.
According to the attorney general, Begaye, D-Shiprock, on five occasions received reimbursement for out-of-state trips from both New Mexico taxpayers and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Begaye’s trip to Phoenix for an NCSL meeting led to an expose last year by television station KOB. It revealed that he had billed both the state and the organization for his expenses.
The staff of Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat, later said that Begaye did not break New Mexico law, based on its reading of the state Per Diem and Mileage Act.
"We have concluded there is no evidence presented that the act was violated via payments made to Representative Begaye," stated R. David Pederson of King’s staff.
The attorney general went on to recommend that the Legislature establish an explicit policy that would limit lawmakers to reimbursement from one entity only when they travel on official business.
Gentry, an attorney, said in an interview Monday that New Mexico already has a criminal statute against billing the state for a trip that was paid for by somebody else. He said it is the law against submitting a false public voucher, a fourth-degree felony.
Gentry’s bill does not attempt to establish a new or different criminal penalty. Rather, it outlines an express policy: “A legislator shall not be reimbursed for travel, parking or other actual costs that are or will be reimbursed by any other entity.”
Gentry said what Begaye did was “troublesome,” but that the possibility of a criminal case against him ended once the attorney general said Begaye broke no law.
“That put it into sort of a prosecution free zone,” Gentry said in an interview.
Begaye, right, did not respond to a call and an email seeking his comment.
Rick Tedrow, the district attorney in San Juan County, said he looked at the possibility of prosecuting Begaye but found jurisdictional roadblocks.
Begaye is Navajo and all his addresses are on the reservation, Tedrow said. Plus, when Begaye filed for travel reimbursement, that occurred in Santa Fe County, where state government is headquartered.
Begaye, who served in the Legislature for 14 years, lost his seat the day before King’s staff issued its opinion saying he had broken no law. Republican Sharon Clahchischilliage of Shiprock defeated him in the general election.
Gentry’s proposal to ban dual reimbursements by legislators is House Bill 44.