June 19, 2015

AG: Mandatory fines, SOS training officer would help campaign finance

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Courtesy photo

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.

Attorney General Hector Balderas suggested changes on Wednesday on how campaign finance violations should be dealt with by the state, including a return of mandatory fines for violations.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. Courtesy photo.

Courtesy photo

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. Courtesy photo.

Balderas made the suggestions in a letter to Secretary of State Dianna Duran. The full letter is available below and comes after two meetings between the offices as part of a Campaign Finance Reporting Task Force.

Balderas recommends that mandatory campaign finance fines be reinstated. This would need to be done legislatively, and Balderas suggested Duran also support a legislative effort to do so.

“This will accomplish reform that is needed to provide clarity to all individuals and entities subject to the requirements of the Campaign Reporting Act,” Balderas wrote. “A statutory change will be a straightforward approach to enforcement of the Act and will enhance your ability to focus your efforts on proactive training to improve overall compliance rates.”

The letter from Balderas also addressed a question that media, especially the Farmington Daily-Times, had been asking about how many campaign finance violations the Secretary of State’s office referred to the Attorney General for investigation.

Fines for campaign finance violations were mandatory in 1993, but the law changed in 1995, according to a spokesman for the Attorney General. The changes allowed discretion from the Secretary of State to waive the fines.

Former state Senator Dede Feldman, a Democrat, spoke to New Mexico Political Report about the letter and suggestions.

“I think that the law should be enforced, that’s all. The law should be enforced,” Feldman said. “If it’s not going to be enforced, then admit that it is toothless.”

Feldman also said she believes there should be fines for “substantive” violations. She says when running for office, one of her campaign finance reports was audited. The audit found a spelling mistake on one of the street names of a vendor.

“That, to me,” Feldman said, “should not be treated in the same way as, ‘Oops, I forgot to record a $2,500 contribution that came in the last week of the election. I didn’t reveal it until my amended report, which was filed three weeks later.’”

The Daily-Times found that over 60 percent of the fines for campaign finance violations were never collected. Some of those who violated the Campaign Reporting Act did so multiple times without punishment.

The Daily-Times continued to report on the story with multiple follow-up stories.

Balderas’ letter to Duran said, “To date, my Office has only received one criminal referral under the Act from your Office.” A spokesman for Balderas said this referred to a mailer sent targeting Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso. This was dealt with before Balderas began his term  at the beginning of this year.

Balderas also suggested a full-time training officer “who is charged with the the responsibility of conducting regular statewide trainings” to help those understand what is required through the Campaign Reporting Act. The letter says and updated web application would also be helpful.

A spokesman in the Secretary of State’s office responded Thursday afternoon with a press release to media.

“The SOS believes that if the AG views certain measures as beneficial to the people and to his office, then he should support them,” the release from spokesman Ken Ortiz said.

The release did not address whether or not Duran will support tightening the campaign finance laws, but said it was up to the legislature to make the laws. New Mexico Political Report had asked Wednesday afternoon if the Secretary of State would support mandatory fines for campaign finance violations.

From the release:

If the legislature has chosen in some portion the Election Code to provide weak laws, in terms of penalties and scrutiny, our office will administer them.

If in some other areas of the Election Code the legislature has chosen to provide less robust means of administration and enforcement, we will adhere to those provisions.

The Secretary of State’s office has supported legislation in the past, including this year legislation to mandate photo identification for voters.

Referrals to AG

The Secretary of State’s Guidelines of Candidates and Campaign Committees outlines what happens after a complainant  alleges a violation of the Campaign Finance Act.

If the Office of Secretary of State reasonably believes that a violation has been committed or a political committee is about to commit a violation of the Campaign Reporting Act, the Office Secretary of State shall refer the matter to the attorney general or a district attorney for enforcement.

Such referrals are very rare.

Inspection of Public Records Act requests by New Mexico Political Report seeking documents related to campaign finance violations sent from the Secretary of State’s office to Attorney General’s office found just two such referrals.

The mailer targeting Cook came from a group called “New Mexico Taxpayers Alliance.” However, the mailer mistakenly said “New Mexico Voters Alliance” and did not include the name of a treasurer.

Cook filed a complaint, saying that New Mexico Voters Alliance was not a registered political group in the state. This occurred over a year ago in a primary that Cook easily won.

Ultimately the office of the Attorney General, then run by Gary King, said “there is no basis at this time to initiate a criminal investigation.” One reason is that “Some of New Mexico’s campaign violation laws, which may seem applicable, are unconstitutional based on U.S. Supreme Court cases.”

A U.S. Supreme Court case commonly cited in such instances is McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which allows some anonymous political speech. A 1997 opinion from former Attorney General Tom Udall (who is now a U.S. Senator) cited the ruling in saying New Mexico’s law is invalid. The law remains on the books in New Mexico, even if the office of the Attorney General finds it unenforceable.

The Secretary of State’s office also sent the case of Stand4KidsNM, a group run by former Albuquerque Public Schools board member Kathy Korte, to the office of the Attorney General.

The Secretary of State referred the complaint by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, to require the group to register as a political committee. The Secretary of State had determined that the group was a political committee in January, which Korte denied.

The resolution in that case is still unclear.

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