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FARMINGTON — A loophole in New Mexico law is allowing a former magistrate judge candidate who accrued thousands of dollars in fines to run for a seat on the Central Consolidated School District's board of education.

Matthew Tso, who has already served one four-year term on CCSD's school board, ran up $4,750 in fines with the New Mexico Secretary of State's Office, as of Dec. 8, for failing to file or filing late campaign finance reports. Tso lost his bid for District 2 Magistrate Judge to Rena Scott.

Tso's reports from the recent general election are now filed. His only income was a $278.68 check he wrote to himself on Election Day. But he has not paid his fines, according to the secretary of state's office.

"I'm just trying to work this out with them to see how this happened," Tso said on Monday.

In the general election, Tso filed a declaration of candidacy under the Campaign Reporting Act. But in the CCSD election, Tso would file under the School District Campaign Reporting Act.

Under the Campaign Reporting Act, a person who has lost an election is banned from filing another declaration of candidacy if they've failed to file campaign finance reports or pay fines imposed by the secretary of state's office.

But the penalties under that act don't prevent Tso from filing under the School District Campaign Reporting Act.

Officials with the secretary of state's office encourage a candidate to voluntarily comply with the Campaign Reporting Act and explain in writing why he filed late. 

Officials then review the explanation to determine how much money, if any, they will fine the candidate. If the candidate doesn't comply, the office can refer his case to the New Mexico Attorney General's Office or a district attorney to enforce fines.

School board elections for the four area school districts, including CCSD, are scheduled for Feb. 3. Candidates vying for those seats must file their declarations of candidacy with the San Juan County Clerk's Office by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Tso said in a Nov. 17 Daily Times article that he plans to run for reelection.

Tso said he learned he was violating the Campaign Reporting Act when he read an article about it in The Daily Times on Dec. 9.

Tso said he received only two emails notifying him his campaign finance reports were late. He said he didn't hear from the secretary of state's office further, so he assumed the issue was resolved.

Also, Tso said, mail sent to his home could have been thrown out because it was assumed to be junk mail.

The day after he read about his violations in The Daily Times, Tso said he emailed the secretary of state's office to find out what was wrong. The office replied to his email with another, he said, that stated officials would respond "soon."

He said he personally completed and filed all of his campaign finance reports through the secretary of state's website "to the best of my knowledge." But, Tso said, he encountered "glitches" numerous times while submitting his reports.

"I'm pretty much at a loss as to what happened," he said.

Rod Adair, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said Tso's fourth campaign finance report was never filed, and Tso is being fined for three reports.

He said Tso violated the Campaign Reporting Act in previous elections, but he could not provide specific dates.

Adair said the law needs to be changed.

"If the Legislature wants to prevent people from skating out from any kind of penalty, then they need to make both acts apply to each other," he said.

As the law is written now, he said, the Legislature has "left this huge, gaping hole between the two acts."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dan_J_Schwartz on Twitter.

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