New Mexico Secretary of State's Office collect few fines

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Matthew Tso, a perennial local candidate, has been fined more than $22,700 for missing campaign finance report deadlines over five years, and in his 2014 reports he failed to accurately list expenses for campaign signs posted and radio ads aired throughout San Juan County.

But for those violations of New Mexico's Campaign Reporting Act, he had paid no fines as of Jan. 21, state officials said. And Tso is not alone.

During the 2012 and 2014 primary and general election, Secretary of State Dianna Duran collected only 4 percent of the 1,984 fines her office assessed, according to a Daily Times analysis of the office's campaign finance data, which were obtained in an Inspection of Public Records Act request. She waived 34 percent of the other fines, and her staff had not collected another 62 percent, according to the data analysis.

State law allows her to refer delinquent fines to Attorney General Hector Balderas, who can prosecute them.

But she has not referred any, her chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, said on Jan. 28.

Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics — a nonprofit organization that collects campaign finance reports and other documents from every state and provides them online to promote accountable democracy — said allowing the fines to slide sets a bad precedent.

These actions, she said, tell candidates: "Don't worry about it. You're going to get away with it."

Phone calls, text messages and an email sent to Tso seeking comment for this story were not returned. Tso is currently a San Juan College board member.

Duran also did not respond to requests for comment for this story. She declined a phone interview request from The Daily Times, and an email sent to Ortiz with questions for her to answer was not returned by Friday's deadline.

One of the questions asked whether Duran considered enforcement of campaign finance reporting laws a priority. Another unanswered question concerned whether the reports are audited.

State law requires that candidates' reports list donations and expenditures. The public documents are also supposed to list the donations' sources.

But Tso's reports don't consistently do that.

They show no income or expenses for the campaign signs he posted around San Juan County during the 2014 general election.

They show he spent only $278.68 on ads at Farmington radio station KNDN during the same election, but that station's records show he spent $439.46.

They show he reported no income or expenses in the 2012 primary election, but the same radio station's records show he spent $723.09 on ads.

During the 2014 election, he unsuccessfully ran for magistrate judge. He ran for state senate in the 2012 election and also lost.

Tso has filed 20 late reports since the 2012 primary election, which is the most in the state for that time span, according to the data analysis. In a Dec. 10 email, Tso provided an explanation to the Secretary of State.

The section of the Secretary of State's website where the reports are to be filed malfunctioned, he said.

The website was giving him difficulties when he tried to log in, he said.

The password to his account on the website wasn't working, he said.

They didn't tell him he was facing thousands of dollars in fines, he said.

They didn't tell him what actions he could take to resolve those fines, he said.

If they did try to tell him in mailed letters, his mother, sister or another family member with whom he shares a post office box, which he doesn't check, could have thrown them out, he said.

He thought the issues were resolved, he said.

"Regardless of what may have happened, I assure you that I want to make a good faith effort to clear this matter up as soon as possible and trust that all of this is just (a) miscommunication and a misunderstanding," he said.

Despite his unpaid fines, he was still able to run for a Central Consolidated School District's board of education seat in December. It was possible because of a "huge, gaping hole" between two laws, says a former spokesman for the secretary of state's office, Rod Adair.

Violations under one law do not affect a candidate's status under the other.

Tso filed a declaration of candidacy for magistrate judge under the Campaign Reporting Act in the 2014 general election. But in the school board election, he filed under the School District Campaign Reporting Act. He later dropped out of the school board race.

Under the Campaign Reporting Act, a candidate 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 penalties applied under that act did not prevent Tso from filing under the School District Campaign Reporting Act. Adair has said the law needs to be changed.

According to the data analysis, 13 other candidates filed 10 or more reports late during the same time as Tso. Among them is Anthony Begay, of Gallup, who filed 15 late; Charles Long, of Crownpoint, who filed 12 late; and John Swenson, of Reserve, who also filed 12 late.

Calls to a phone number for Begay listed on the Secretary of State's website were answered by a man who identified himself as Jose. He said he didn't know Begay.

The man who picked up Long's phone said he had no information about campaign finances and then the call cut off. A second call rang through to voice mail, but the message left was not returned. Long is the secretary and treasure for the Navajo Nation Becenti Chapter. He did not return an email seeking comment.

The phone number for Swenson listed on the Secretary of State's website was disconnected.

"Clearly your state has some issues enforcing its laws," said Barber, with the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

She was referring to a study her institute released in December that ranked New Mexico among the four least transparent states in campaign finance reporting.

When campaign finance laws aren't enforced, she said voters lose trust in their democracy, elected officials, law enforcement and elections.

But most New Mexicans do want greater transparency, according to a statewide poll conducted by Common Cause New Mexico, a branch of a national nonprofit organization that advocates for "open, honest and accountable government."

According to the poll, which randomly surveyed 451 registered voters, 92 percent of New Mexicans want all large political contributions from individuals, corporations, political action committees, nonprofits and unions to be made public.

Further, 88 percent would support a bill this legislative session that would require independent political groups to report their donations and how they're spending their money, according to the poll.

And 89 percent think requiring lobbyists to make public bills and issues on which they're being hired to lobby is a good idea, according to the poll.

As of Friday, House Bill 278 and Senate Bill 384 are the only bills introduced this legislative session designed to improve the state's campaign finance transparency. They are identical bills, which is an insurance policy, in case one dies.

Viki Harrison, Common Cause New Mexico executive director, said the state's lax enforcement is making candidates lazy and creating a vicious cycle.

"We can whine about the fact that nobody votes and we can whine about the fact that people don't register to vote," she said, "but if they don't see any accountability from any of their elected officials, why would they vote?"

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and and @dtdschwartz on Twitter.