State officials pledge effort to oversee campaign finances

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Attorney General Hector Balderas and Secretary of State Dianna Duran are forming a task force to overhaul a campaign finance reporting system that has operated with little oversight in recent election cycles.

The agency heads said the task force will address enforcement, referral processes for investigation and possible prosecution of violations, and finding best practices, according to a Friday evening press release.

The task force will be composed of staff members from Balderas' and Duran's offices. After reviewing findings they will recommend policy reforms and potential legislative fixes that an interim committee can consider, according to the release.

On Feb. 8, The Daily Times reported that, in the past two election cycles, Duran's staff had collected only 4 percent of the nearly 2,000 fines she imposed on candidates for violating the Campaign Reporting Act. Of all those fines, she waived approximately one-third. And she had taken no enforcement action on any of them.

State law allows Duran to refer the violations to the Attorney General's office or a local district attorney. There, the misdemeanors can be investigated and prosecuted.

But as of Thursday Duran has referred no fines to the Attorney General's office, Balderas said. San Juan County District Attorney Rick Tedrow recently said his office hadn't received any referrals either.

Balderas told Duran Thursday afternoon in a letter that he is ready to "accept violations of the Campaign Reporting Act" if they are suitable for referral, according to the letter.

Balderas' spokesman, James Hallinan, declined to comment beyond what was in the release. Efforts to reach Duran's spokesman, Ken Ortiz, were unsuccessful.

"I think this is great," said Viki Harrison, director of Common Cause New Mexico. "This is something that we have advocated for for many years."

Harrison's organization is a branch of a national nonprofit that advocates for "open, honest and accountable government," and she said having Balderas and Duran working together to create clear campaign finance rules and regulations is a "positive step for us."

The task force will have many benefits, she said. It will be able to enforce violations and educate candidates who may be confused about the state's campaign finance reporting laws — because they are constantly changing. As a result, she said, more New Mexican's may begin to vote.

"We're talking about public trust," Harrison said.

San Juan County District Attorney Rick Tedrow said he's had questions about the state's campaign finance laws since The Daily Times' story was published. And he said he's spoken in the past weeks with his attorneys about the various campaign finance bills currently under consideration in the Legislature.

At this point, he welcomes a meeting of attorneys, county clerks and task force members to discuss best practices so his staff can understand state election laws better. The election code, he said, is a confusing section of law.

"I'm really glad to see the Secretary of State taking this initiative," he said.

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