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Rep. Martin J. Quezada wants to create an independent, nonpartisan commission that would investigate alleged violations of election laws as well as ethics complaints lodged against elected state officials. (Cronkite News Service Photo by AJ Vicens)

PHOENIX -- A state lawmaker wants to create an independent, nonpartisan commission that would investigate alleged violations of election laws as well as ethics complaints lodged against elected state officials.

Rep. Martin J. Quezada, D-Phoenix, said the Arizona Ethics and Elections Commission called for in HB 2140 would increase accountability for candidates and lawmakers.

The body would have the power to audit candidates' financial accounts, offer advisory opinions and impose civil penalties if it finds a violations.

At present, the Arizona Secretary of State's Office investigates allegations against candidates and can impose civil penalties or forward cases to the Attorney General's Office. Ethics committees in the House and Senate handle complaints against state lawmakers.

"A big part of it was the ethics committee hearings we've had over the past couple years and seeing what kind of circus that turned into," Quezada said at a news conference Monday. "To be able to remove that process out of the Legislature and put that in an independent body whose sole priority is not politics but investigating to see if wrong has been done, that's the whole point of this bill."

Another goal is making the campaign violation complaint process more efficient, Quezada said.

"Due to the heavy workload of the Secretary of State's Office, a lot of times those complaints aren't able to be investigated until the results of that investigation are no longer beneficial to the people running those campaigns or to the public," Quezada said.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, through spokesman Matt Roberts, declined to comment Monday on Quezada's bill.

The governor, highest-ranking statewide official of the minority party and highest-ranking members of both chambers of the Legislature would each get to appoint a member of the six-person. The commissioners would be barred from serving in any public office during their five-year terms or from working officially with any political committees.

The commission would have subpoena power and would be able to levy fines of up to $5,000 for violations of state election laws.

Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson was the chair of the Open Government Committee during the the 2012 general election. The committee unsuccessfully pushed for Proposition 121, which would have replaced Arizona's partisan primary system with a single primary that would advance the top two candidates regardless of party.

Johnson said in a phone interview Monday that his committee was in court several times before the election and was the subject of numerous campaign complaints. He said the courts, Bennett and county election officials handled the complaints as best they could, but said the time it takes to resolve issues leaves too little time to fix any problems.

He would be open to Quezada's commission, he said, as long as it brings more people into the political process rather than creating restrictions.

"At the end of the day, they will not be able to usurp the (state) Constitution or the courts' ability to make decisions about what goes to the ballot," Johnson said. "If they're just trying to make sure people follow the rules, then yeah."

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