September 11, 2017

City council candidate ordered to pay almost $2K for campaign violations

The City of Albuquerque Board of Ethics Monday afternoon voted to impose a $1,900 fine on an Albuquerque City Council Candidate for not following the city’s election code.

The hearing was the latest related to a complaint by former mayoral candidate Stella Padilla and private investigator Carlos McMahon against city council candidate Javier Benavidez.

Padilla and McMahon alleged that Benavidez’s campaign fraudulently obtained about $38,000 of public campaign funds by using some of their own money instead of collecting $5 from each petition signer.

Padilla and McMahon’s lawyer, prominent Republican Pat Rogers, wrote in his closing argument that Benavidez should return the taxpayer-funded money his campaign received, be fined at least $21,000 and be removed from the City Council if he wins the race. Rogers also said the issue should be referred to the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution.

The city’s public financing provision requires candidates requesting public funds to collect signatures and $5 contributions from a certain percentage of voters in their district. Benavidez’s lawyers argued that while his campaign workers may have made mistakes, they were not intentionally fraudulent. Further, his lawyers wrote, the city’s public financing rules are ambiguous and don’t clarify whether a $5 contribution can be made on behalf of another person. They said the sanctions Rogers asked for were beyond the duties of the board.

“The Complainants’ attack on Mr. Benavidez and his campaign was a singular affront to the fair election process and an ugly and ad hominin (sic) attack on a hard-working candidate with an excellent reputation,” Benavidez’s lawyers wrote.

Board of Ethics members excused themselves to a closed session to discuss the case and did not comment publicly on their discussions. The board agreed unanimously that Benavidez broke city election rules and imposed the fine.

One of Benavidez’s lawyers, Molly Schmidt-Nowara, told NM Political Report the boards decision was fair and reflected that his campaign unintentionally broke the rules.

Rogers told NM Political Report the $1,900 fine did not go far enough to address what he said were false statements by Benavidez, under oath, and fraudulent campaign finance records.

“Mr Benavidez cheated,” Rogers said. “Mr. Benavidez’s representatives cheated.”

Perjury occurred, Rogers said, when Benavidez testified that City Clerk Natalie Howard gave him permission to “vouch” for his campaign workers. Howard denied that claim during her testimony.

Schmidt-Nowara said Rogers’ perjury claim is a “conflation” of a statement Benavidez made about telling Howard he trusted his campaign workers.

“Javier did not lie,” Schmidt-Nowara said.

Rogers added that he thinks the fine sends a message of leniency to other potential candidates.

“He’s made a joke of the public financing,” Rogers said.

Schmidt-Nowara, on the other hand, thinks the drawn-out hearing will actually deter canidates

from breaking the rules.

According to public financing records filed last week, Benavidez’s campaign still has about $21,000 on hand. If the board would have taken Rogers’ suggestion for financial punishment, Benavidez’s campaign would be more than $38,000 in the hole.

Rogers said he will confer with Padilla and McMahon and assess his current caseload before deciding whether to pursue the case in state district court.