April 11, 2016

Sandra Jeff quietly amends reports, $27K in debt disappears

Andy Lyman

Sandra Jeff

While former state Rep. Sandra Jeff avoided ballot disqualification after a recent scuffle with the Secretary of State, several questions remain about possible discrepancies in previous campaign reports.

Former State Rep. Sandra Jeff

Andy Lyman

Former State Rep. Sandra Jeff

The biggest question is the sudden disappearance of more than $27,000 in debt from her failed 2014 campaign for reelection to the state House of Representatives.

In July 2014, Jeff reported a loan contribution of $26,720.82 from Gallagher & Kennedy, a law firm with offices in Santa Fe and Phoenix. A note next to the contribution reads, “Campaign Debt for legal fees incurred.”

Jeff continued to report this debt, plus an extra $1,200 that she loaned to herself, for the next six campaign reporting periods, marking a period of nearly two years.

But on March 15 of this year, Jeff amended seven old campaign reports from the 2014 election cycle. In her newly amended campaign reports, the $27,820.82 in campaign debt vanished.

This raises several questions, including why an apparent in-kind contribution well above the then-mandated state limit of $2,400 per individual per election was allowed.

“I don’t see how on Earth anyone can do any kind of contribution, whether it’s monetary or in-kind, that goes 10 times above the limit,” Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said in an interview. “There needs to be some explanation of why this $26,000 loan for services was provided—which is basically an in-kind donation—and why it disappears without any explanation.”

Ken Ortiz, chief of staff for Secretary of State Brad Winter, directed all questions about the $26,000 loan to Jeff. The Secretary of State is in charge of policing campaign finance violations for legislative candidates and others.

Jeff is currently challenging incumbent state Sen. Benny Shendo in the Democratic Party primary or Senate District 22 this June. She didn’t answer multiple phone calls from NM Political Report Friday seeking comment for this story. As of press time, voicemail services for the telephone number listed as Jeff’s campaign committee wasn’t set up. NM Political Report previously reached Jeff through this number.

Another phone number listed for Jeff on her campaign reports begins with the numbers “555” and connects to a directory assistance service.

Zach Cook, a Republican state Representative from Ruidoso who recently worked as Jeff’s attorney, also didn’t return a voicemail.

The timing on the loan matches up with legal challenges Jeff fought in court in 2014 that eventually disqualified her from that year’s primary election ballot.

Jeff served as a Democrat and represented a House district in western and northwest New Mexico from 2009 through 2013. During her tenure, Jeff got into constant battles with her party’s leadership and voted with Republicans on key issues like redistricting and the state budget. She famously did not vote on a 2013 vote to increase the minimum wage, even after receiving a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden urging her to vote yes.

Jeff denied ever speaking to Biden until the White House itself confirmed he spoke to her on the phone.

The environmental advocacy group Conservation Voters New Mexico successfully challenged Jeff in court during the 2014 election for not having enough proper signatures to qualify for the ballot. Jeff then ran as a write-in candidate that year’s general election, losing to Democrat Wonda Johnson.

Jeff’s gratuitous changing of her old reports also does not look good to Harrison.

The Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Information System shows Jeff amended seven of her campaign reports 11 different times since the summer of 2015.

One of Jeff’s 2014 primary election reports was amended four different times, most recently last month.

Harrison said these actions don’t instill trust in the state’s campaign finance system.

“I suspect amending reports two years later is not good practice,” she said.

Ortiz said that candidates amend their campaign reports to meet the accuracy required under the state Campaign Reporting Act.

“If a mistake of omission is made, an amended report may be made to ensure accurate reporting,” Ortiz wrote in an email to NM Political Report.

Ortiz did not address questions about how long after elections candidates can amend campaign reports or whether penalties exist for filing incorrect reports.

The Secretary of State’s Office originally disqualified Jeff from the ballot against Shendo this year for what General Counsel Amy Bailey described as “noncompliance” with “reports which were due in past filing periods and the fines associated with those past issues.”

But last week, Jeff and the Secretary of State came to an agreement to put her name on the upcoming primary ballot after she agreed to pay a fine of roughly $100, according to Cook.