New Mexico struggles with campaign finance enforcement

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2015 2:27 PM
New Mexico struggles with campaign finance enforcement

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Former New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran was able to funnel thousands of dollars in campaign donations to her private bank accounts during a gambling binge without any regulatory agency noticing that she was breaking the law.

Duran's own agency was in charge of regulating campaign finance, but it was a confidential tip about numerous cash deposits that led to her getting caught.

In the wake of the violations by Duran, more lawmakers were accused of sidestepping campaign finance laws by spending political donations on satellite TV service, clothing from outlet stores and other personal expenses.

Investigations are ongoing and no other charges have been filed in what has become a recurring problem in New Mexico political circles.

Voters and open government advocates are wondering how many more violations will surface now that glaring weaknesses are being highlighted in New Mexico's campaign finance reporting system.

— Rep. James Roger Madalena, a Jemez Pueblo Democrat who has served in the House for 30 years, spent campaign funds on surgery expenses, attire from a Nike outlet store and satellite TV service. He chalked it up to "clerical errors and honest mistakes."

— Rep. Antonio Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, acknowledged failing to report more than $11,000 in contributions.

— Former Sen. Phil Griego, another Democrat, was warned that he may have violated campaign finance laws by spending thousands of dollars on office space rental, travel and political consulting despite having resigned from the Legislature.

— Jay McCleskey, one of Gov. Susana Martinez's top political advisers, recently became the focus of a federal inquiry into campaign fundraising tactics. Authorities have been tightlipped about the case, and McCleskey has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

State officials acknowledge that without major changes to campaign finance rules, the state will be left to rely on enterprising reporters and snitching political insiders to ferret out violators.

"Right now, enforcement is based on tattle-tail resources," Kari Fresquez, the state's elections director, told lawmakers during a recent meeting in Santa Fe.

Efforts to reform the state's campaign finance laws have come in fits and starts over the past decade. A series of corruption scandals inspired lawmakers to adopt contribution limits in 2009, but efforts have proven more difficult to close loopholes that allow independent groups to keep the names of their political donors secret.

Some lawmakers have floated proposals for addressing the so-called "dark money" in New Mexico politics and for establishing an ethics commission that would investigate allegations of wrongdoing by government officials. New Mexico is one of only a few states without an ethics commission.

The governor's office hasn't said whether it will add the proposed reforms to the agenda for the 30-day legislative session that begins in January. The ideas being discussed include bolstering disclosure requirements and installing a new reporting system to better track donations and spending.

Many are asking if not now, when?

Viki Harrison, director of Common Cause New Mexico, one of the advocacy groups pushing for more transparency, said Duran's case and the others that have come to light as a result of the fallout should mark a tipping point for state lawmakers to close the gaps.

Harrison said the office of the secretary of state also has the ability to make changes to beef up the enforcement of existing laws and the reporting software itself. For example, regular audits beyond the 10 percent of reports called for by state law could help to identify more red flags.

Duran acknowledged shuffling thousands of dollars in political contributions to personal bank accounts to pay for a gambling habit that worsened in recent years. Prosecutors say she filed false campaign finance reports in the process.

During her tenure as the state's top elections official, Duran issued hundreds of fines to candidates and elected officeholders for violating campaign finance reporting requirements. However, her office collected only a fraction of those fines and failed to forward a single case to state prosecutors between 2010 and 2014, fueling criticism from open government advocates.

This year, the number of cases referred to the attorney general's office jumped to 32, said Ken Ortiz, a spokesman for the secretary of state. Many of those cases came as the spotlight expanded to the spending and fundraising activities of all officeholders.

Attorney General Hector Balderas is among those who say the campaign finance reporting law lacks teeth. He has warned that even minor violations can open the door to greater abuse and fraud.

"It's important that we have strict compliance across the board," he said. "These are million-dollar accounts being managing as if they are lemonade stand accounts. They need to be taken more seriously."

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM