SANTA FE – The state Republican Party called for an investigation Friday into whether Democrat Tim Keller’s mayoral campaign is circumventing Albuquerque’s public financing system.
And a Republican candidate for mayor, Wayne Johnson, filed a complaint with the city ethics board, also seeking an investigation.
The Keller campaign, in turn, says it’s simply following city rules that allow in-kind donations to publicly financed candidates. His campaign manager called the complaint “frivolous.”
The GOP letter and ethics complaint come after KOB-TV this week reported that Keller’s campaign manager had told supporters they could make out checks to her campaign firm, and it would be listed as an “in-kind donation” that buys services and supplies for the candidate’s campaign.
Keller, the state auditor and a former state senator, opted into Albuquerque’s public financing system this year, meaning he can’t take cash donations like the other seven candidates in the race. Instead, he received about $343,000 in city funding for his campaign, and he was allowed to raise some seed money that pushed his total resources to roughly $380,000.
Supporters, however, can make up to about $38,000 in in-kind donations of goods or services, but not money, to his campaign.
Republican Party attorney Blair Dunn described the arrangement – allowing donations to the firm running Keller’s campaign – as the “laundering of money contributions” and a potential violation of the law.
Allowing it, Dunn said, is “beyond absurd and would completely defeat the intent of public financing.”
Johnson, in his ethics complaint, said the Keller campaign has improperly solicited, collected and reported cash contributions.
Keller’s campaign manager, Jessie Hunt of Rio Strategies, defended the practice, saying that other publicly financed candidates have used “the exact same procedure” in past elections.
“It’s no surprise that the Republican Party is filing a frivolous complaint against the leading candidate for Mayor,” Hunt said in a written statement. “Tim Keller has always been committed to open and ethical government and our grassroots campaign is in full compliance with the law, including adhering to the $38,019.10 cap on such contributions.”
Keller has reported in-kind donations worth about $36,000 this year. His campaign reports don’t make it clear whether donors gave cash to Rio Strategies. Nonetheless, they show that his campaign accepted dozens of contributions with “professional services” listed as the in-kind purpose.
Dunn on Friday sent a two-page letter requesting an investigation to Attorney General Hector Balderas, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, City Clerk Natalie Howard and City Attorney Jessica Hernandez.
Balderas, a Democrat, has endorsed one of Keller’s rivals in the mayoral race, Brian Colón, an attorney and former Democratic Party chairman.
In a written statement, Balderas said he would refer the investigation request to the proper authorities to allow for an investigation without his involvement.
“As these allegations relate to alleged improprieties by another candidate in that race, rather than detract from the legitimacy of the allegations with my involvement, I am referring the investigation to the proper authorities,” Balderas said, acknowledging his endorsement of Colón.
Hernandez, the city attorney, said she and Howard, the city clerk, would “review the letter and determine the appropriate process and office to evaluate these concerns.”
They didn’t respond to a question about the practice in general – whether the City Charter allows people to make cash donations to a firm that, in turn, works for the candidate’s campaign.
Keller is a leading contender in this year’s mayoral race. The top two voter-getters in the Oct. 3 election will advance to a runoff in November, assuming no one gets 50 percent in the first round of voting.
Besides Keller, the field features:
⋄ Democrats Colón and Gus Pedrotty, a recent University of New Mexico graduate.
⋄ Republicans Johnson, a county commissioner; Dan Lewis, a city councilor; and Ricardo Chaves, founder of Parking Company of America.
⋄ Independents Michelle Garcia Holmes, a retired Albuquerque police detective, and Susan Wheeler-Deichsel, co-founder of the civic group Urban ABQ.
Keller has also faced criticism because an independent Measure Finance Committee has raised about $210,000 in donations to support his bid for mayor – which is legal, as long as the committee doesn’t coordinate with Keller’s campaign.