Former lawmakers’ campaign funds scrutinized

The Secretary of State’s office said this week it would look closer at a former lawmaker’s decision to contribute money from his campaign fund to a family member running for office last year. Former Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, donated $2,400 in December 2013 to his son Randy’s unsuccessful House primary race and another $2,600 […]

The Secretary of State’s office said this week it would look closer at a former lawmaker’s decision to contribute money from his campaign fund to a family member running for office last year.

Money flying_sidewaysFormer Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, donated $2,400 in December 2013 to his son Randy’s unsuccessful House primary race and another $2,600 donation on June 6, 2014, after the primary, campaign finance documents show. The contribution limits in 2014 were $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the general election.

Secretary of State spokesman Ken Ortiz said the office would review the situation involving Saavedra, which appears to exceed state limits.

“In the case with Rep. Saavedra, we will need to review the donation of $2,600 to determine if it exceeds the allowable limits,” Ortiz wrote in an email.

Former Rep. Saavedra said he didn’t realize the contribution might violate state law.

“I probably made a mistake,” he said. “When my son ran, he needed money.”

Meanwhile, another lawmaker who resigned office last year amid an ethics scandal said he  was waiting for an answer from the Secretary of State’s office on what to do with leftover money in his account.

Former Democratic Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, raised more than $28,000 just from lobbyists since 2013. Griego’s most recent campaign filing indicated he still had more than $48,000 in his account.

Griego said last week in a phone call he isn’t sure what he will or can do with the leftover money.

“If they told me I can keep it, I’d have to pay taxes on it,” he said. “I haven’t been instructed. I’ve got a call in to the Secretary of State’s office. They haven’t gotten back to me.”

State law forbids lawmakers from keeping leftover campaign money. They may donate it to other candidates or PACs within the state’s limits, convert it to a campaign for a different office, donate it to a charity, return it to contributors or give it to the state general fund.

“They do not get to keep it by any stretch of the imagination,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

The situations involving Saavedra and Griego are examples of questions swirling around campaign finance reports from New Mexico candidates and lobbyists. Such reports are receiving increased scrutiny since Attorney General Hector Baldaras filed criminal charges against Secretary of State Dianna Duran accusing her of using campaign money for personal expenses.

Recently New Mexico In Depth examined lobbyist contributions to candidates, noting that the actual donor – typically a lobbyist’s client – often wasn’t listed by lobbyists. Other candidates are under fire for failing to report some contributions.

NMID began checking the campaign finance reports of former lawmakers after noticing that several received money from lobbyists before announcing their retirements.

Harrison said it’s possible the Campaign Finance Act needs to be refined, along with better information and enforcement from the Secretary of State’s office.

“We’re not trying to trip these people up,” Harrison said. “We want people to run for office. But at the same time, there has to be an easy way for the public to have the information and for everything to be above board. We’ve got to bring back some trust in our process.”

Griego is one of seven former state lawmakers with leftover money in their campaign accounts. They’ve been spending the money in a variety of ways – contributing to other candidates or nonprofits, but also paying themselves or family members for legislative work.

A dozen lawmakers, including Saavedra and Griego, raised money until announcing their retirement or, in Griego’s instance, a forced resignation. Several have spent all of their money.

Here’s a look at the spending and balances by the other 10 who’ve left or are leaving the state Legislature:

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, a Santa Fe Democrat, announced earlier this year that he would retire, and has more than $64,000 in his account.

Varela said he’ll be cautious in spending his remaining campaign money, donating to other campaigns and nonprofits as allowed by state law, citing recent controversies.

“As you’re aware, I still have a year and a couple of months to go,” he said. “I want to make sure that I stay within the campaign reporting requirements.”

His son, Jeff Varela, is running for his seat. Lucky Varela has paid his son more than $12,000 since the beginning of 2013 for constituent work. And he’s paid himself more than $5,000 in three payments for legislative session and campaign expenses.

The Campaign Finance Act requires “a full, true and itemized statement and account of each sum disbursed or received, the date of such disbursal or receipt, to whom disbursed or from whom received and the object or purpose for which it was disbursed or received.”

“These are expenses that I was able to legitimately claim for my own expenses that weren’t mileage or per diem,” Varela said of the payments to himself.

Of his son’s service, he said, “Every session I hire him to work for me during the session. He does the research work for me.”

Former Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, had more than $17,000 in her account when she filed a campaign finance report in 2014. After being contacted by New Mexico In Depth, she filed another report this week reducing that amount to about $14,000 reflecting new activity on her account since her last filed report.

Crook said she’s donated some of the money to charitable organizations and still spends money to meet with constituents even though she’s retired. She was surprised to learn that she should still be filing reports.

“Oh dear, well I guess that’s probably been an oversight,” Crook told New Mexico In Depth. “I will call Ken (Ortiz) and I will certainly get up to date on those.”

Former Rep. Edward Sandoval, D-Albuquerque, has almost $25,000 left in his account. He told New Mexico In Depth that he’s donating most of the money to charities, including the University of New Mexico’s cancer center and Very Special Arts, as well as making some campaign contributions.

“There’s still some political things I’m doing,” Sandoval said. “I’m whittling it down, trying to finish it up.”

Former Rep. Ernest Chavez, D-Albuquerque, filed his last report in mid-October 2014, paying the last $552.67 in his account to himself on Oct. 6 for “Political Rally for Valley Democrats.” He also paid himself $500 in May 2014 for “Constituent Services, primary help.”

Reached by phone, Chavez didn’t elaborate on how he used that money.

“I’m out of commission. I’m in a nursing home,” he said. “I’ve been out of it for a year and a half. Good luck.”

Former Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, still has almost $11,000 in his campaign account after leaving office. He’s continued to pay for computer services and constituent meetings, including a $228 charge at Costco in March for a “Meeting with Residents.”

“Constituents continue to call me,” Miera said of such spending.

The former House majority leader also donated to other candidates, and he may use the money for a future political run.

“I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to run again for something else,” he said.

Former Minority Leader Rep. Thomas Taylor, R-Farmington, had more than $11,000 left in his account according to a report filed last year. In an April filing, he noted no activity.

But after being contacted by New Mexico In Depth, Taylor said in an email that he’d file a new report with additional contributions made last fall which were to be reported in April. “By then four months retired I just plain forgot” to file the report reflecting the contributions, he wrote to NMID.

Former Reps. James White, R-Albuquerque; Nate Cote, D-Organ; Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs; and William Gray, R-Artesia; also retired after the 2014 election. All four closed out their campaign accounts, donating most of their money to other candidates.

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