Attorney General Hector Balderas calls for mandatory campaign finance reporting fines, reforms at Office of Secretary of State

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is asking for reforms in the Office of the Secretary of State that would overhaul a reporting system that has allowed hundreds of candidates for public office to violate a campaign finance reporting law without paying fines.

"We are going to be pushing for mandatory fines," Balderas told The Daily Times in an exclusive interview Wednesday.

In February, The Daily Times reported that Secretary of State Dianna Duran collected only 4 percent of the 1,984 fines her office assessed during the 2012 and 2014 primary and general elections. She waived approximately one-third of the uncollected fines, and the office didn't collect almost two-thirds of the remainder.

State law allows Duran to refer cases of delinquent fines to Balderas, who can investigate and prosecute them. But Duran has only referred one case, according to documents The Daily Times obtained on May 29 and June 9 from Balderas' office in a public records request. Balderas confirmed this on Wednesday.

During the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, 106 candidates violated the Campaign Reporting Act five or more times, according to a Daily Times analysis of data received from Duran's office on Jan. 21 in a public records request.

The act requires candidates to report campaign money they receive and spend, which is meant to allow the public to track who is funding their campaigns. The act requires candidates to meet deadlines but — as it is written now — asks candidates to voluntarily comply and allows Duran to waive or reduce fines imposed for late filing.

"Clearly she needs some more teeth in the law," Balderas said.

Numerous attempts by phone and email over the past week to contact Ken Ortiz, Duran's chief of staff, for comment on the lack of referrals were unsuccessful.

Balderas said he will begin meeting with lawmakers, Common Cause New Mexico — a state branch of a national nonprofit that pushes for greater government transparency and accountability — and other stakeholders to lobby for mandatory fines for violations of the act.

He said he doesn't know why the mandatory fines were removed from state law, but he will support a legislative proposal to reinstate the provision, which can be evaluated in the current interim legislative committee process.

Balderas also recommended three changes in Duran's office in a letter he sent her Wednesday

He suggests she employ a dedicated training officer to hold regular statewide trainings so candidates and entities who are repeat offenders can better understand campaign finance laws.

He suggests Duran upgrade her office's website where campaign finance information is filed to make it easier for people to follow the laws and to minimize reporting errors. Candidates have said the website is difficult to use.

He also suggests Duran create an enhanced notification process to alert candidates, their treasurers and other authorized individuals of late notices from her office and other developments.

Balderas' recommendations come months after a task force comprised of his staff and Duran's met on April 8 and 17 to discuss solutions to Duran's campaign finance reporting system. Balderas and Duran announced the task force on Feb. 20 after a series of stories in The Daily Times detailing problems with the current system.

"Common Cause is thrilled to see these two offices working together like this," said Viki Harrison, Common Cause New Mexico director.

Harrison said she supports Balderas' recommendations. They are what the state needs, she said.

And the mandatory fines will get people's attention — not just the candidates' but also the public's, she said. Voters lose faith in their democracy when candidates suffer no consequences, she said.

"Bottom line," she said, "this made my week."

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