September 15, 2017

Mayoral ethics complaints unlikely to be settled before election

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Photo Credit: apalapala cc

The last few weeks of any election are sure to be dramatic as campaigns pile on the ads and social media posts, claiming opponents are acting improperly or are just bad people.

The Albuquerque mayoral race is no different.

With early voting already started and election day about two weeks away, the flow of campaign ads and ethics complaints is increasing. While ads run through election day, ethics complaints follow their own timeline and may not have resolutions before the polls close

In a recent complaint filed with Albuquerque’s Board of Ethics, mayoral candidate and Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson alleged that candidate and State Auditor Tim Keller’s campaign accepted money as an in-kind contribution. The city’s election code doesn’t specifically state how an in-kind contribution should be received, but it does note that any professional services or property rental should be noted as an in-kind contribution on campaign finance filings.

Keller qualified for and accepted public financing, which means he cannot raise additional private funds for his campaign.

Filing ethics complaints against candidates can be an effective way to sway public opinion. That’s in part because the accusation is made, and makes headlines, during campaign season, but the hearing officers’ decision might not come until after the election.

According to the board’s rules, hearings must be scheduled with 14 days’ notice to the respondent. Johnson and Keller’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25. If the city Board of Ethics determines the complaint against Keller warrants an evidentiary hearing, the soonest the board can schedule it is October 9—seven days after election day.

Ethics violations or hit pieces?

Earlier this month KOB-TV reported that Keller’s campaign accepted a number of in-kind contributions for “professional services” from a former New Mexico Lt. Governor, a current state senator and a teacher.

Johnson’s complaint, which was filed with the help of Albuquerque attorney and former Republican National Committeeman Pat Rogers, claims Keller’s campaign took money from donors and claimed them as in-kind contributions. The complaint does not connect checks or actual payments to those in-kind contributions, but says that Keller’s campaign “solicited” money in lieu of in-kind contributions. As evidence, the complaint lists the number of in-kind contributions and includes a link to KOB-TV’s story.

The KOB-TV report included a leaked note from Rio Strategies co-owner Jessie Lane Hunt, written to an unknown potential donor, stating that in-kind contributions can be made by writing a check to Rio Strategies. Though the news report did not show a check connected to the note, it  raised questions about what kinds of professional services some donors could offer.

Generally, in-kind contributions are considered goods or services donated to a campaign instead of cash. Those goods or services often include a property rental, food for campaign volunteers or supplies.

The guidelines for whether or not in-kind contributions can be monetized to a physical check or cash is murky. But the election code states that, “Contributions of property, including the use thereof, and contributions of commercial or professional services shall be attributed a cash value equal to their fair market value.”

The news report about Keller’s in-kind contributions came days after the release of polls showing Keller leading the field, primed for a position in a November runoff election.

More campaign allegations

Days after Johnson and Rogers filed their complaint, a Keller supporter filed his own.

Former State Director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Terry Brunner filed an ethics complaint with the Bernalillo County’s ethics board against Johnson.

Brunner claimed Johnson solicited and accepted money from donors who have done business with or received money from the county. The Bernalillo County Code of Conduct prohibits donations from anyone who seeks “official action” or does business with county officials, including County Commissioners.

Brunner’s complaint included a list of large dollar donations from 14 businesses and business owners, totaling about $37,000.

Dale Armstrong, for example, owns TLC Plumbing and Utility and donated more than $5,000 to Johnson. TLC has a number of construction contracts with both the city and county.

Both complaints will likely require an in-depth analysis or additional investigation—and neither will likely be resolved before election day.

Former Albuquerque City Attorney and Chief Public Safety Officer Pete Dinelli told NM Political Report ethics complaints like these often only serve as a distraction.

“What the complaints do is become a real nuisance to distract candidates attention and take up lots of time and at times money to respond to,” said Dinelli, who ran for mayor in 2013.

He pointed to a recent ruling against city council candidate Javier Benavidez and the nearly-$2,000 fine levied against him.

Rogers filed the complaint against Benavidez and asked the city ethics board to issue a $21,000 monetary punishment against Benavidez and bar the candidate from serving on the city council if he won.

Instead, the board levied the smaller fine and declined to bar Benavidez from office.

“The outcomes are usually fines, with nothing more happening, as was the case with Javier,” Dinelli said.

Dinelli said the public rarely pays attention to the specifics of city ethics complaints, but only notice when they’re filed or decided upon. He added that ethics complaints give “bragging rights to the party that prevails” and possibly fuel for negative campaign ads.

“The ethics complaints, if successful, would form the basis of the attack ads,” Dinelli said.

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