Inside the Capitol

Thursday, December 18, 2008

12-22 NM's Most Enduring Tradition

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- "Corruption is the most enduring tradition in New Mexico's history."
Those are the words of my favorite historian, Dave Clary of Roswell reacting to last week's column about New Mexico ranking low in a recent study to identify the most corrupt states in the nation.
USA Today analyzed Department of Justice statistics for the past 10 years to find the states with the most convictions of public officials per 100,000 population.
New Mexico turned out to be one of the least corrupt states, according to that measure. Illinois was only the 18th most corrupt. I suggested reasons the study might be flawed. Readers have e-mailed with their ideas.
Jeffrey Fields of Alamogordo suggests that the reason places such as Chicago and New Mexico rank lower in corruption than expected is that residents are accustomed to corruption being "the way things are done" so it is accepted and seldom exposed or prosecuted.
Michael Johnston, a college professor, says places that gain a bad reputation then become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Expectations build up and office holders replicate those expectations when they get to the top of the ladder.
All three of these explanation have a similar theme. Clary says that in the 1600s, Spain exercised considerable oversight to keep governors and army officers in its far-flung provinces from enriching themselves. It limited their terms, subjected them to audits and forced them to settle dubious accounts before they were free to return to private life.
But this control faded by the 1700s. Political offices were purchased and treated as money-making propositions. The tradition of "la mordida" became well established throughout New Spain.
Then came the early 1800s, when Mexico's long battle for independence left it in no condition to govern itself. So the worst excesses of the old regime were perpetuated, especially in the northern provinces of New Mexico, Texas and California.
During the Mexican period, government in New Mexico was characterized by absolute, self-serving corruption in all offices. Judges extracted arbitrary fees from those appearing before them.
The opening of trade over the Santa Fe Trail opened wonderful new opportunities for graft and Gov. Manuel Armijo became our state's most notorious crooked politician.
By 1846 Armijo owned most of Albuquerque and had trading interests from Missouri to Chihuahua. He used his office to line his pockets at every turn. Evidence seems to indicate that he committed the most outrageous possible corruption by selling New Mexico to Steven Watts Kearny's army in 1846.
During the next four years, while New Mexico was under military rule, some military commanders managed to feather their nests in concert with Anglo traders and Indian agents.
Out of this was born the notorious Santa Fe Ring, which made our territorial government a synonym for official thievery for decades to come. The Ring combined greedy businessmen and lawyers with government officials, scattered from top to bottom, in all three branches of government.
Thanks to Dave Clary for this information. Much of this will be in his "Eagles and Empire," which Random House will release next July.
Other good books on the period, written by New Mexicans, include "Eagle Across the Sun," by Don Brittain of La Luz, which covers the 1800-1848 period and "New Mexico's Troubled Years," by Calvin Horn, which covers our territorial governors from 1851 to 1881.
The Ring lasted for decades. Even after Congress decided we had tamed down enough to become a state, we had a wild ride through prohibition, with illegal gambling, sanctioned by governors.
That era ended with the death of Cricket Coogler in 1949 and the revelation that the Cleveland Mafia was about to make Santa Fe the gambling capital of the world after Bugsy Siegal failed in Las Vegas.
Clary suggests that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojavich may have taken a page out of Gov. Armijo's book by following his advice that it is better to look brave than actually be brave. It appears Blagojavich also may be all talk.
MON, 12-22-08

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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