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Editorial: Two panels should expedite mayoral election complaints

Now that Albuquerque’s seven-member Board of Ethics has voted to hold an evidentiary hearing on county commissioner/mayoral candidate Wayne Johnson’s 11th-hour complaint against state auditor/mayoral candidate Tim Keller, it should move forward immediately by waiving the 14-day hearing notice requirement and working diligently to reach a conclusion before Tuesday’s municipal elections.

Ditto for Bernalillo County’s Code of Conduct Review Board, which received a complaint from prominent Democrat Terry Brunner against Johnson three days after Johnson had filed his about Keller.

Doing otherwise leaves a cloud over the election, Keller and Johnson’s campaigns, and could influence how people vote. Early voting has been underway since Sept. 13 and continues through Sept. 29. Election day is Oct. 3.

Johnson, who waited until Keller had filed at least five campaign finance reports before lodging his complaint, claims Keller violated city election rules by having donors write checks to his campaign strategy firm, Rio Strategies, to fund “in-kind” services. Because Keller qualified for nearly $343,000 in public campaign financing, he’s barred from directly accepting outside campaign funding. However, campaign rules do allow him to collect up to $38,019.10 in “in-kind” donations, typically things like signs, office rent, paper, postage and other campaign expenses.

(In addition, an independent “measure finance committee,” similar to a political action committee, has collected funds and spent money on behalf of Keller. That’s legal as long as there is no “coordination” between the committee, ABQ Forward Together, and Keller’s campaign.)

In agreeing to hold an evidentiary hearing, the panel determined that, if the statements in the complaint were found to be factual, they would likely constitute a violation of the ethics code. The panel did not schedule a hearing date.

Keller says he chose to have the “in-kind” contributions in the forms of checks go through Rio Strategies for transparency, insisting that several candidates before him have done the same thing. Keller says in-kind contribution limits can be gamed by low-balling the cost of the gift. The problem with accepting checks is that the City Charter defines “in-kind” donations as goods or services other than money.

Meanwhile, Brunner claims, “Johnson has provided thousands of dollars in benefits to people who then became his contributors.” His complaint cites about $40,000 in contributions from individuals or companies doing business with the county. The county’s Code of Conduct prohibits elected officials from accepting more than $1,000 in campaign contributions from such “restricted donors” or their family members.

Johnson says “the charges by Mr. Brunner are without foundation or any validity. I am running for mayor, not for county commissioner.” The county’s Code of Conduct Review Board is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing on the Johnson complaint at 3 p.m. Monday.

Keller, a Democrat, and Johnson, a Republican, have six other challengers in the nonpartisan race, which is likely to lead to a November runoff between the top two vote-getters.

The two ethics boards have an opportunity to not only clear the air of allegations involving two campaigns, but to make some important clarifications. On the city side, that’s exactly how to handle in-kind donations. On the county side, that’s whether the classification of “restricted donor” applies to races outside the county’s purview.

Timely decisions will not only clear the smoke from this election but set needed precedents for future ones.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.