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‘Donate’ Links Up During Session

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During the recent special session of the Legislature, Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee sought donations from visitors to its website.

The problem: State law prohibits the governor or an agent of the governor from soliciting political contributions during a special or regular session and until the 20th day after adjournment.

The “DONATE” link at www.susanapac.comwas removed shortly after I telephoned the Secretary of State’s Office about the possible violation of the Campaign Reporting Act.

The Secretary of State’s Office is the implementing agency for the campaign law and can impose fines for violations. The maximum penalty is $5,000 per violation.

Jay McCleskey, political adviser to Martinez, said in an email exchange that the Susana-PAC contribution link was inadvertently left up but was removed Monday “out of (an) abundance of caution.”

McCleskey added, “Only two individuals attempted to contribute through the website since Sept. 6 – one for $15 and another for $200 – and those contributions will not be accepted.” The special session began Sept. 6 and ended Saturday.

The fundraising ban during special sessions also applies to legislators, but at least one lawmaker – House Judiciary Chairman Al Park, D-Albuquerque – had a website link seeking contributions during the session. Park said it was an oversight.

The fundraising prohibition doesn’t end for the governor until 20 days after a special or regular session because that is the time allotted for signing or vetoing any approved legislation.

A Google snapshot of the home page of Susana-PAC during the special session showed a “DONATE” link.

The Secretary of State’s Office initially said the contribution link at www.susanapac.comseemed to be a violation, then backtracked, saying it appeared to be lawful because the governor isn’t an officer of the PAC and any money raised was going to the PAC and not Martinez’s campaign committee. The Secretary of State’s Office later said it needed time to examine the issue more fully.

SusanaPAC was formed in late February. The Susana Martinez for Governor campaign committee made the first donation to the PAC; it was for $5,000.

Danny Diaz, identified as a political spokesman for Martinez, told The Associated Press that the governor formed the committee to help in the elections of candidates who share her views for changing New Mexico. The PAC can make donations to candidates and provide other assistance, such as advertising.

The address listed on the PAC’s finance report filed in April was the same address as that of McCleskey’s media company in Albuquerque. The PAC’s treasurer, Katia Vigil, was deputy finance director for the Martinez campaign and now works for McCleskey, according to McCleskey.

In a brief telephone conversation Tuesday, Vigil said she was aware that a question had arisen about the PAC’s fundraising during the special session and said she was the only officer of the PAC as far as she knew.

Lawmakers warned

The home page of www.susanapac.comfeatures a dramatic black-and-white photograph of Martinez celebrating her win on election night last November.

Until it was removed, there was a yellow box with the word “DONATE” just below the photo. You could make a contribution and pick your payment method by clicking on the link.

The law says it is unlawful “for the governor, or any agent on his behalf, to knowingly solicit a contribution for a political purpose” after a proclamation for a special session has been issued and ending on the 20th day following adjournment.

“Political purpose” is defined as attempting to influence an election or pre-primary party convention.

There is nothing in the law about the fundraising ban applying only to the governor’s campaign committee or to a PAC in which the governor serves as an officer.

The more pivotal legal question may be whether an online donation link amounts to a solicitation. Then-Secretary of State Mary Herrera found in late 2009 that such links are solicitations.

Herrera sent a letter to legislators telling them to remove donation links from websites during sessions. “The law is clear,” she told KRQE-TV at the time.

Links removed

Herrera was faced with the question about the fundraising ban because of ActBlue, a political committee based in Massachusetts that collects, then distributes contributions for Democrats around the country.

Dozens of New Mexico legislators are listed on ActBlue, and there are website links where visitors can make contributions to the lawmakers through ActBlue.

Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, said ActBlue is aware of the need to remove the contribution links for New Mexico legislators during sessions.

A Google snapshot of the list of New Mexico House members on ActBlue from Sept. 8 showed the contribution links had been removed. The links were there again Monday.

I couldn’t find a Google snapshot of the list of New Mexico Senate members on ActBlue during the time of the special session, but Keller said he checked the list just before the special session and the contribution links had been removed.

Park, the House judiciary chairman, had a “Donate” link on his Facebook page during the special session. I’m not sure the contribution link would have worked, since it sent visitors to ActBlue.

To ensure compliance with not only the letter of the law, but the spirit, the link should have been taken down during the special session, Park said. “I didn’t think about it,” he said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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