NM deals with campaign finance warnings backlog
SANTA FE — New Mexico election regulators have resolved only a fraction of campaign finance warnings against elected officials and candidates left behind by disgraced ex-Secretary of State Dianna Duran.
Eight of nearly 33 cases have been resolved, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press through a public records request. The backlog highlights continued vulnerabilities in New Mexico's campaign finance system.
Unresolved warnings still are pending against longtime Democratic lawmakers James Roger Madalena and Antonio "Moe" Maestas, former state Sen. Phil Griego, at least six political action committees and many an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff, county commissioner, the state Legislature and judiciary posts.
Madalena has cited honest mistakes, Maestas acknowledged mistakenly failing to report contributions, and Griego has asked regulators for more time to explain.
Warnings address obvious missteps such as absent and late-filed reports, along with more serious allegations of candidates failing to report donations or misspending funds on clothing and auto repairs.
After resigning last year, Duran served 30 days in jail for violating the laws she was supposed to uphold by using her own campaign contributions to fuel a gambling spree.
During her tenure as the state's top elections official, Duran issued hundreds of fines to candidates and elected officeholders for violating campaign finance reporting requirements. However, her office collected only a fraction of those fines and failed to forward a single case to state prosecutors between 2010 and 2014, fueling criticism.
New Mexico relies essentially on two agencies overseen by elected officials — the attorney general and secretary of state — to vet campaign finance reports and pursue violations and indications of corruption.
Thirty-one cases were turned over to state Attorney General Hector Balderas in September but were thrown into limbo by Duran's own transgressions, with the attorney general declining to represent the Secretary of State's Office while he was prosecuting Duran. No cases have been referred to the attorney general since then.
Some collaboration with the attorney general's office has been re-established, according to current Secretary of State Brad Winter, an Albuquerque city councilor appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to lead the agency through the November election, when a successor will be chosen.
Winter has placed an emphasis on preventing campaign reporting violations before they happen by educating candidates and political action committees. His agency is adding employees to its education, ethics, and compliance division.
The Secretary of State's Office has administrative authority to levy fines, negotiate settlements and eventually disqualify candidates.
But it cannot demand bank records and relies heavily on voluntary compliance. It ultimately can call on prosecutors to subpoena records and impose sanctions.
Amy Bailey, the agency's general counsel, is leading the effort to clear the backlog, and says it is important to give candidates and committees a new chance to respond.
New tools of inquiry could be at the agency's disposal soon.
The Legislature this year approved an overhaul of the agency's online reporting system for candidates, lobbyists and political committees that should make it easy cross-reference the exchange of money.
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, an advocacy group for greater government disclosures, said one easy improvement would require candidates to file a campaign bank statement with reports.
A similar proposal to authorize direct access to candidate bank account information got a cold reception in committee and never reached a floor vote.