Officials say Secretary of State must enforce campaign finance laws

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Lax enforcement of campaign finance reporting laws gives voters more reason to be cynical about the democratic process, said a state senator who has introduced a bill intended to improve campaign finance transparency.

A recent Daily Times analysis of campaign finance report violations showed that Secretary of State Dianna Duran's office collected a small fraction of the fines it imposed, waived a little more than one-third of those fines and failed to refer any of the remainder for investigation and possible prosecution.

"The Secretary of State needs to follow through," said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. When voters feel like the system is rigged, he said, it's just another reason to stay home.

Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, is sponsoring a bill identical to Wirth's in the House of Representatives, but efforts to reach him Thursday by the deadline for this story were unsuccessful.

During the 2012 and 2014 primary and general elections, Duran's office collected 4 percent of the 1,984 fines her office assessed, according to the Daily Times analysis of data obtained from the Office of the Secretary of State in an Inspection of Public Records Act request. The office waived 34 percent of all the fines imposed and didn't collect another 62 percent, according to the analysis.

The office imposed the fines on candidates for filing campaign finance reports late. State law requires candidates to list donations, expenditures and sources of each in the reports so voters can track who is financing their campaigns. Advocates of transparency say this allows citizens to judge whether money is having an undue influence on lawmakers' positions and votes.

New Mexico law allows Duran to refer delinquent fines to the state's attorney general or a district attorney — any of whom can investigate and prosecute the candidates — but she hasn't referred any, her chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, said on Jan. 28.

Duran declined to comment for this story. She, through Ortiz, also declined an interview and didn't respond to emailed questions for a Feb. 8 story that detailed the Daily Times data analysis.

"As you might imagine, our office is extremely busy during the legislative session and as such, we will not be able to respond to your questions by the deadline you have stated below," Ortiz said in an email Thursday when asked for comment on this story and for a response on the outstanding questions.

Among the unanswered questions were whether Duran considered enforcement of campaign finance reporting laws a priority, whether she had recently referred any fines for possible prosecution and whether her staff audits campaign finance reports.

Newly elected Attorney General Hector Balderas also declined an interview for this story, as did Gov. Susana Martinez's office.

Balderas' spokesman, James Hallinan, would not say whether Duran had referred any fines to his office. When asked, he said in an email, "The Attorney General's Office routinely receives referrals for investigations, however, we do not comment on referrals regarding individuals who are accused but not charged."

San Juan County District Attorney Rick Tedrow said that election code violations should be prosecuted. On Thursday, he said Duran had not referred any of the unpaid fines to his office.

"We're more than happy if we get the referral from the county clerk or secretary of state to prosecute," he said, "if the evidence is there."

He also said he became concerned when he read in a Dec. 16 Daily Times story that a loophole was allowing Matthew Tso, a candidate who had accrued more than $22,700 in late-filing fines, to run for Central Consolidated School District's board of education despite the fact he had unpaid fines at the time.

Tso said in an email sent to The Daily Times after the original story ran that he had paid his fines, which Duran reduced to $738. But her office has not confirmed that. Tso did not immediately respond to a request left late Thursday for comment on this story.

Tso had filed a declaration of candidacy for magistrate judge under the Campaign Reporting Act in the 2014 general election. For the school board race, he filed under the School District Campaign Reporting Act. The Campaign Reporting Act prohibits a candidate from filing another declaration of candidacy if the candidate failed to file campaign finance reports or pay fines imposed by the Secretary of State's office.

But violations under one act do not affect a candidate's status under the other. Tso later dropped out of the school board race.

Tedrow said he called the Secretary of State's office. "I thought it was inappropriate for that loophole to be there," he said.

At this point, new laws will not fix the problem of lax enforcement by the Secretary of State, Wirth said. The laws, he said, are strict enough.

And the problem is not that Duran can waive fines or determine which to refer for prosecution, he said. Many violations, he said, may be inadvertent.

But when Duran waives so many fines and doesn't refer any others for enforcement, then, he said, "there's a problem."

Wirth said it's up to the Secretary of State to send the message that, "Campaign finance laws are serious and need to be followed."

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