September 18, 2015

‘Flawed’ campaign finance system in NM leads to more questions

State lawmakers are coming under more scrutiny since New Mexico Secretary of State’s office recently started investigating a handful of state legislators for possible campaign finance violations.

Bag o CashState Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-AlbuquerqueRoger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo and Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, are all under fire for discrepancies in their campaign finance reports.

But perceived problems with campaign spending aren’t limited to them. New Mexico Political Report also found questionable campaign spending by state Reps. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales and Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola.

New Mexico Political Report reviewed only a handful of campaign finance reports.

Ken Ortiz, chief of staff for Secretary of State Dianna Duran, said his “staff is working on the campaign finance inquiries that have come to our attention.”

Duran is battling her own ethics issues after Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a criminal complaint accusing her of illegally using campaign money for personal use, including cash withdrawals at casinos.

While some entries in lawmakers’ finance reports may seem problematic, it turns out many may be the result of a flawed reporting system, outdated reporting laws and poor reporting by candidates.

“A majority of these are going to continue to be simple mistakes,” said Viki Harrison, director of Common Cause New Mexico, which advocates for clean elections. “But they erode public trust, which is the opposite of what we want.”

New Mexico is one of the few states in the U.S. that is run by an unpaid state Legislature. Representatives and senators often rely on the stipend they receive and campaign contributions. New Mexico laws allow legislators to use campaign funds for daily expenses such as office supplies or official trips.

That, coupled with a problematic reporting system, opens the door for ambiguous use of campaign money.

In October 2014, Roybal Caballero reported a $4,000 contribution to Equality E PAC. While large expenditures to other campaigns or political action committees may raise eyebrows for some, Harrison said current campaign contribution rules allow it.

Caballero also reported spending almost $1,400 for a hotel stay in Anchorage, Alaska for the Council of State Governments. Harrison said this is acceptable because it is part of her role as a legislator.

But it’s Roybal Caballero’s reported spending of campaign money on gifts that Harrison said might be problematic. In November 2014, Roybal Caballero spent $48 for a “retirement gift” at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

In an email to New Mexico Political Report, Caballero said the purchase was for a bolo tie for former House Chief Clerk Stephen Arias when he retired. She added that the purchase was a “reasonable expenditure” under current campaign finance rules, but acknowledged that it raises concerns about “why we need to fix our broken campaign finance reporting system.”

Powdrell-Culbert made similar expenses, according to her finance reports. On Valentine’s Day earlier this year, Powdrell-Culbert spent $116 at Dillard’s, a department store, on gifts for her legislative and campaign staff. She also spent $19.76 at Ross in March 2014 and $25.44 in February 2014 for gifts at TJ Maxx, two other department stores.

“I can’t imagine what that was for,” Harrison said.

Harrison said the state’s Campaign Reporting Act “is very specific,” noting that it “specifically excludes personal living expenses.” While Powdrell-Culbert also marked many restaurant expenses as “gifts,” Harrison said the law allows “a lot of leeway” on food expenses.

Powdrell-Culbert did not return a voicemail New Mexico Political Report left for her Thursday afternoon.

Other listed payments are hard to track exactly what lawmakers spent the money on.

Rodella reportedly spent almost $5,000 on credit card payments from July 2014 to March of this year. Each of the seven expenditures entries are listed as payments to Visa, with a note added to break down the charges.

While this raised concerns with Harrison, she said it might be explained by sloppy accounting and an outdated reporting procedure. Rodella is listed as her own campaign’s treasurer. When New Mexico Political Report contacted her she said she was busy and would call back. We will update this story when she calls back.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision also feeds into the broader problem, Harrison argued.

“In just five years since that decision campaigns have become very expensive,” she said. “There’s a lot more money to keep track of.”

She said her organization’s goal is to make a campaign finance system that’s easier for lawmakers to file on and simpler for the public to read and navigate.

It’s a problem that Ortiz acknowledged.

“The current campaign finance information system does not have any automatic cross checking capability so the process is manual,” Ortiz said.

He said his office’s review process will include analyzing “hundreds of thousands of entries” that “need to be individually reviewed” to determine whether lawmakers are spending campaign money legally and reporting their fundraising accurately.