Board finds Keller violated ethics code

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Tim Keller
Tim Keller

He broke the rules but didn’t mean to.

That was the eleventh-hour decision made Monday by the city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices, which found that mayoral candidate and state Auditor Tim Keller violated the City Charter’s Elections Code and the Open and Ethical Elections Code.

But the board opted not to issue a reprimand or a fine in the case, determining that Keller “acted in good faith and did not intend to violate” the rules.

The decision – which came less than 19 hours before polls open for today’s mayoral runoff election – was unanimous, although board member Gerges Scott did not take part in the proceedings. Keller, a Democrat, is facing City Councilor Dan Lewis, a Republican, in the runoff.

Both sides hailed Monday’s ruling as a victory.

Lewis called the ruling “proof that Tim Keller lied to Albuquerque voters and illegally worked with his political allies to funnel cash to his campaign.”

“How can we trust Tim to hold criminals in this city accountable when he thinks he is above the law himself?” Lewis said.

Keller pointed to the part of the ruling that found any violations were not intentional.

“Though our opponents have used trumped up terms like dishonest, ‘money laundering’ and ‘cash under the table,’ those assertions were always baseless and the board’s ruling confirmed that today,” Keller said in a statement. “That came out loud and clear in today’s ruling which emphatically notes our good faith efforts.”

The complaint the board ruled on dealt with the manner in which Keller and his campaign handled in-kind donations. Two other complaints against Keller are still pending, one that alleges that his campaign is illegally coordinating with a political action committee supporting him and another alleging that he broke the rules by failing to report the attorney fees he has incurred defending himself against the ethics complaints. Two of the complaints were filed by Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, a Republican and one of eight mayoral candidates on the Oct. 3 ballot. The third complaint was filed by private investigator Carlos McMahon, who the Keller campaign points out was indicted on multiple counts of fraud and perjury.

Keller has denied that he is coordinating with the political action committee, and he has indicated that he plans to cover the legal fees out of his own pocket.

Johnson applauded the finding that Keller broke city campaign finance rules, but was disappointed that no fine was imposed.

Johnson’s attorney, Pat Rogers, also issued a statement.

“We appreciate the work of the Board of Ethics and the confirmation of what we all know – Mr. Keller broke a number of ethical rules concerning contributions and reporting,” Rogers said. “… By the time all of the ethics complaints against Mr. Keller are addressed by the Ethics Board, it will (be) difficult to find an ethical rule Mr. Keller and his political operatives actually honored.”

The ethics board heard arguments and took testimony on the Keller in-kind contributions complaint last Thursday. Keller reported close to $38,000 in in-kind donations. Most of that came in the form of checks written by Keller supporters to Rio Strategies, the firm running his campaign, and was used to pay for Rio Strategies’ services.

The complaint, filed in September, alleged that the Keller campaign “falsely reported these cash contributions as ‘in-kind contributions’ on several reports” submitted to the City Clerk’s Office.

Keller is a publicly financed candidate and, as such, he generally can’t take cash donations. He was allowed to take up to $38,000 in in-kind contributions, which is defined as goods or services, but not money.

The ethics board determined that the relationship between Rio Strategies and the Keller campaign was “so highly intertwined and connected as to make it difficult to distinguish one from another.” Given that relationship, the board found, the checks made out to Rio Strategies “were monetary contributions and cannot properly be classified as in-kind contributions.”

Specifically, the board determined that Keller broke the rules by accepting monetary contributions beyond the money given to him by the city and “seed money.” And he broke the rules by failing to deposit those “in-kind” checks into his campaign account, the board found.

But there were several mitigating factors, the decision states. It notes the “undisputed witness testimony that Rio Strategies had relied on similar practices in the past and recommended this plan” to Keller. The board also noted documentary evidence and witness testimony that these practices had been informally approved by the city auditor in other campaigns.

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