A former campaign manager for Santa Fe mayoral candidate and City Councilor Patti Bushee is raising questions about whether Bushee has run afoul of the rules for candidates accepting public financing to run for city office.
Tarin Nix told city officials the Bushee campaign approached her about “swapping” out a $1,750 paycheck she got from Bushee’s personal account in June for a November payment for the same amount drawn from the “seed money” from private donations allowed for Bushee and other publicly funded candidates.
“I am seeking your opinion on whether or not it is acceptable for me to accept a second check in lieu of already previously receiving a check back in June?” Nix wrote City Clerk Yolanda Vigil in an email dated Tuesday.
Nix wrote in an email to reporters that she’s retained legal counsel and plans to file information with the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board. Nix said her attorney is “reviewing all documents I provided and city law this evening and will advise me on what needs to happen (today).”
In her email to the city clerk, Nix – whose résumé includes running Stephanie Richard’s successful campaign for the state House District 43 seat in 2012 – said she was hired by Bushee on May 25 “to run her (then) privately funded mayoral campaign.”
Nix said she was told by the Bushee campaign less than a month later that they were revisiting the idea of using public campaign financing instead and Nix was no longer needed. Nix said she was paid the $1,750 on June 19. Nix has cashed the June check.
On November 15, Nix said, she got a call from Joe Lennihan, an attorney and volunteer with Bushee’s campaign. He asked if Nix would swap the earlier check for a new one “so my payment was noted as coming from the Bushee’s seed money account.”
Santa Fe’s public campaign finance code requires publicly financed candidates to swear under oath that they’ve made expenditures using private funding only from the seed money allowed to candidates for initial campaign expenses. Seed money is limited to $6,000 and individual seed money contributions must be no more than $100. Candidates are required to make expenditures from one bank account.
In June, the Bushee campaign didn’t have enough money to cover the check given to Nix and Bushee says it was paid from her personal account.
The public financing system provides $60,000 to qualifying mayor candidates. The election is March 4.
‘Nothing to hide’
Bushee said Thurday she’s not trying to hide anything. She said the proposed November check to Nix is an attempt to reconcile the earlier, June payment from her personal account – made when Bushee thought she would run a privately funded campaign – and her later decision to seek public financing.
“I just want to make it very clear no one is trying to hide the first payment nor the second payment. We wanted to be very clear about what took place,” Bushee said.
Lennihan said he doesn’t recall exactly what he said to Nix in their recent conversation about a new check. He said he did explain that the new check was to be a payment from seed money and that whether Nix cashed it would be her decision. If Nix doesn’t cash the check, the money goes to the city’s public campaign financing fund.
If Nix cashes the second check, she would receive double payment for her brief stint with the Bushee campaign.
All five of Santa Fe’s 2014 mayoral contenders are seeking public financing. Candidates turned in required qualifying private contributions to the city clerk’s office on Monday – mayoral candidates seeking public financing are required to show they have viable community support by collecting 600 private donations of $5 each – and will be certified for public campaign money by Dec. 5.
The $6,000 in private seed money at issue in the Bushee matter is separate from the required $5 donations and is intended to allow candidates to raise some early funding to help them get started.
A report filed by Bushee with the city shows she had received $200 in contributions by June 19, when she made the payment to Nix. She raised the full $6,000 maximum by the November deadline.
Bushee said Nix was let go because she wasn’t a good fit for the campaign. At the time, Bushee said, she hadn’t fully decided whether to go the public or private funding route but had taken steps to “clear the deck” to ensure public money was an option.
Nix was insistent on being paid right away and, on legal advice from attorneys working on her campaign, Bushee said she paid Nix with her personal funds.
When the decision was made to seek public financing, Bushee said she sought advice on how to move forward. That involved returning two donations that had exceeded the $100 seed money maxium and, eventually, dealing with the Nix payment.
Bushee also sought the advice of attorney Jim Harrington, a state chair of advocacy group Common Cause New Mexico which has worked extensively on the city’s election and public campaign finance codes. Harrington said Bushee came to him about a week ago and he advised her to make a payment to Nix out of seed money. The check made out to Nix in June would then no longer be considered a campaign expense, he said.
“I think it addressed it in the best way they could. Ideally, you would have made this person (Nix) wait (for payment),” Harrington said.
Harrington said that, under his interpretation of city code, it’s OK for a candidate to incur an expense early on in the campaign and pay for it later when the seed money starts to roll in.
Bushee had to swear under oath when she recently reported her campaign contributions that she had only spent seed money. Harrington said by giving Nix a new check in November for her past services, she met the terms of the oath. If there is a “technical violation” it probably doesn’t warrant serious punishment, he said.
“It came out right at the end and she didn’t get the benefit of private spending because she took it out of seed money,” Harrington said.
If Nix files a complaint and the ECRB finds Bushee guilty of violating the code, punishment range from doing nothing to a reprimand to revoking Bushee’s status as a publicly financed candidate.
Bushee said her employment agreement with Nix was verbal and that Nix spent most of her time in Texas while employed by the campaign and produced no real work.
Bushee said she would have waited to pay Nix with seed money but Nix insisted on being paid immediately and that the legal advice she received was to go ahead and pay her former campaign worker. Bushee said she considered reimbursing herself for the June check to Nix but was advised that this would be considered a loan to the campaign.
“It’s not like we’re trying to pretend it didn’t exist. We’re trying to figure out how to follow the code to the best of our ability. These are unusual circumstances. We followed everything,” Bushee said.
Bushee said she has incurred no campaign expenses other than what she’s reported to the city.
Vigil, the city clerk, responded to Nix’s email on Wednesday by saying she can’t advise Nix but that Nix can file a complaint with the city’s citizen-led Ethics and Campaign Review Board. Vigil added that if the complaint isn’t filed by Dec. 2 “it will be my working presumption that you do not wish to pursue this complaint.”