The chief of staff for New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission has accepted a job at a telecommunications company regulated by the PRC—a possible violation of a state law that bars PRC employees from taking “anything of value” from a regulated entity.
PRC Chief of Staff Johnny Montoya confirms with SFR he has already accepted the job offer. But he declines to name the company on the record or disclose his new title, which is significant because the same state law bars PRC employees from appearing before the commission or in court on behalf of regulated entities for one year after leaving the PRC. Montoya says he will not be appearing before the PRC or in court on behalf of his future employer. He’s leaving the chief of staff position, where he made $90,899 annually to oversee the agency’s general operations, on Aug. 30.
When asked if his company hired Montoya, David Gonzales, a spokesman for CenturyLink— a large telecommunications company that operates in New Mexico—says the company “does not comment on rumors or innuendo.”
News of Montoya’s departure comes just after state lawmakers implemented PRC reforms that voters approved as constitutional amendments in 2012. The reforms were widely seen as a response to frustration with corruption at one of the state’s most important agencies, which is charged with setting utility and health-insurance rates for New Mexicans.
The reforms tightened professional qualifications for PRC commissioners and restructured how the agency does business. But they did not address revolving-door issues like Montoya’s. New Mexico’s ethics laws covering elected officials are already lax—legislation that would have forced PRC commissioners and lawmakers to wait a year after leaving public service before becoming lobbyists died again this year. And the relevant statutory language covering PRC employees is open to interpretation.
A 1998 law prohibits PRC employees from “accept[ing] anything of value from a regulated entity, affiliated interest or intervener” and says only that “anything of value” does not include refreshments costing $5 or less, inexpensive promotional items or pension and disability benefits. The law states PRC employees cannot have a “pecuniary interest in a regulated entity” and that PRC employees cannot solicit any regulated entity “to appoint a person to a position or employment in any capacity.”
The Governmental Conduct Act, a separate statute, broadly prevents a state employee from making official acts for the primary purpose of enhancing his or her own financial interests—and includes employment and “prospective employment” as financial interests. It also requires state employees to disclose in writing all outside employment.
Arthur Bishop, a spokesman for the PRC, says “the Commission is satisfied with [Montoya’s] actions.”
“From a human resources perspective, I mean, we’ve reviewed the statute,” he says. “I don’t think Johnny felt there was any sort of conflict of interest there.”
Bishop says Montoya submitted his resignation before accepting the job, adding that a job offer doesn’t constitute something of value.
Former PRC commissioner Jason Marks, now a private attorney, disagrees. He says Montoya’s situation “raises questions.”
“You can get a job offer, but you can’t take a lunch that costs $8?” he says. “It’s just not common sense—and I don’t think it’s what you get from the law, either.”
Marks says the commission “has had more than its share of problems in its history” and that Montoya’s situation creates “too much of a potential for an actual quid pro quo—or an appearance of one.”
Marks also notes that if it’s appropriate for employees to take jobs at regulated entities, then it would be appropriate for a commissioner, in his or her last year in office, to talk to PNM, for example, about a job offer.
When asked why he was leaving, Montoya did not initially disclose that he had taken a job at a regulated entity. And news of his departure last week didn’t mention his future plans.
“I got the sense that someone was trying to find something that’s not there, because the [Albuquerque] Journal called and says, ‘Well, what’s the deal?’” Montoya says. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m just leaving, and I’m giving 30-day notice, and I’m trying to do something different.’ And once they found out there wasn’t a story, you know, they just kind of wrote a paragraph for the paper today. But, you know, I don’t—there’s really nothing to it.”
When asked whether he accepted a job yet, Montoya told SFR, “I have not.”
But he immediately backtracked. He said the details of the position had not been finalized. When pressed, Montoya finally confirmed he’d taken a job at a regulated entity.
“I think that Johnny Montoya’s been a good chief of staff, and I would have no problem giving him a recommendation for another job,” Marks says. “Just not this one, under these circumstances.”
Freelance journalist Peter St. Cyr contributed to this report.