October 13, 2017

Post-election, campaign finance concerns follow Keller

Andy Lyman

Tim Keller during the first round of voting in the Albuquerque mayoral election in October, 2017.

Albuquerque’s mayoral runoff election is a month away and so far the two campaigns have stayed relatively quiet. But an upcoming ethics hearing and the city’s public finance rules could make the runoff election more complicated or at least open the door for more attack ads, particularly against State Auditor Tim Keller.

Originally scheduled for Oct. 12, an ethics hearing for a complaint against Keller was moved to only a few days before the Nov. 14 runoff election—and well after early voting starts. A fundraising group supporting Keller has also drawn the ire of Keller’s opponent, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis.

Keller, the only publicly financed mayoral candidate, came under fire after his campaign was caught accepting checks as a form of in-kind contributions. As a publicly financed candidate, Keller is not allowed to accept private contributions. He was, however, allowed to accept contributions in the form of goods or services. The city election code does not specifically define what in-kind contributions are, but in other elections, in-kind is generally considered anything other than money, such as the use of office space or food at an event. The city’s provision for public financing defines an in-kind contribution as a “good or service, other than money.”

Former mayoral candidate and current Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson filed the complaint against Keller for accepting checks written to Keller’s campaign management company, Rio Strategies, as a form of in-kind contributions.

A lawyer for Keller did not respond to NM Political Report about why the hearing was rescheduled, but Johnson’s lawyer, Pat Rogers, said the hearing was postponed due to a scheduling conflict with Keller’s lawyers.

While the Albuquerque Board of Ethics will likely not make a determination on whether the campaign violated any election rules until after the runoff, it did rule that Keller cannot accept any more in-kind contributions. The board cited the city’s public financing provision, which states publicly-financed candidates can only accept in-kind contributions until the “regular municipal election.”

In a statement sent through Rio Strategies, Keller’s attorney Molly Schmidt-Nowara praised the board for answering the question posed by the Keller campaign.

“This provides much needed clarity to some grey areas that all publicly financed campaigns face,” Schmidt-Nowara wrote. “We are looking forward to continuing our campaign with transparency and to demonstrate that despite its challenges, public financing is a better way to run for office in Albuquerque.”

Lewis told NM Political Report he was glad to see the board’s decision limiting Keller’s in-kind contributions.

“This is why voters hate politicians,” Lewis said. “They think they can operate under different rules.”

The city’s public financing provision allows Keller to receive about $130,000 in additional public funds for the runoff election. In addition to money for Keller’s campaign, there is also a Measure Finance Committee, the city’s version of a political action committee, raising money to support Keller.

Days before the election, Johnson filed another complaint alleging Keller’s campaign and ABQ Forward Together coordinated by each paying an identical amount of money to the same vendor, a day apart. ABQ Forward Together is also headed by Neri Holguin, who has helped with previous Keller campaigns.

“Now if we can only get them to expose his connection to the political slush fund run by his longtime political consultant,” Lewis said, referring to Holguin.

While Keller’s campaign is limited only to public funds, Lewis, as a privately financed candidate, has more flexibility to raise money and other Measure Finance Committees can also support him. The MFC Make Albuquerque Safe, for example, spent almost all of the $60,000 it raised on negative ads against Keller, calling him a sexual predator sympathizer for a vote he cast while in the New Mexico State Senate.

That money came from a developer involved in the controversial Santolina planned development and a southern-New Mexico oilman.

As of last week, Keller’s campaign had $500 cash on hand and Lewis’ had a little more than $44,000.