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Judge strikes down city ban on corporate gifts

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A federal judge on Wednesday struck down the city of Albuquerque’s ban on campaign contributions from corporations or business entities, saying the prohibition violates the First Amendment.

In her order, M. Christina Armijo, chief U.S. district judge, didn’t explicitly address a companion ban that covers donations from city contractors. Her earlier decisions, however, restricted the scope of that ban.

Jason Bowles, an attorney for Giant Cab Co., said Wednesday’s judgment is a victory for free-speech rights. His client donated to City Councilor Janice Arnold-Jones, who returned the contribution, citing the ban on corporate donations.

“The original impetus behind this (ban) was to limit business involvement in political campaigns,” Bowles said in an interview. “… I think this decision is a victory for the First Amendment. It says we’re all on a level playing field.”

The case centers on a provision in the City Charter approved overwhelmingly by city voters in 2007. It prohibits business entities and corporations from donating to candidates for mayor and the City Council.

Also banned are contributions from city contractors, defined as any person who’s “in a contractual relationship with the city” at the time of the contribution. City employees are excluded from the ban.

Candidates who accept such contributions can face a public reprimand, fines or removal from office.

Several people sued over the ban this year, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.

Some of the plaintiffs in the suit had donated to Mayor Richard Berry’s campaign and also have a management role or ownership interest in a business with a city contract.

Armijo said earlier this year that they weren’t prohibited from donating to a candidate, as long as they do it under their own name and not the business’ name.

And on Wednesday she said a wholesale ban on corporate contributions “cannot be sustained in the face of the First Amendment.”

Armijo referred to a variety of other court decisions in her own order, including the Supreme Court’s decision in “Citizens United” three years ago. In that case, the Supreme Court lifted many restrictions on corporate spending in political elections, on First Amendment grounds.

Armijo said there was “no evidence proffered that the City Council, prior to enacting the resolution placing (the ban) on the ballot, considered objective evidence of the extent of participation by business corporations in ‘pay to play’ schemes or the use by individuals of the corporate form to circumvent individual contribution limits.”

She said the council also didn’t appear to have discussed “why an absolute ban on corporate contributions, rather than a contribution limit, was appropriate.”

Attorney Colin Hunter, who represented some of the plaintiffs, said Armijo’s decision “is a victory for everybody to equally participate in Albuquerque city elections. There’s never been a history of corruption that would be justified by such a ban.”

Mayoral candidate Pete Dinelli’s campaign had intervened in the lawsuit to uphold the ban.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and are considering all further options,” the campaign said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, this ruling will make it easier for our Republican mayor and the corporate special interests backing him to buy city elections.”

Berry’s campaign has said repeatedly that it’s in compliance with all city campaign rules.

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