Suit: Contractor contribution ban illegal

The city of Albuquerque’s ban on campaign contributions from city contractors and business entities now faces a court challenge alleging the rule violates the First Amendment.

Four New Mexicans filed a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court this week, arguing that the ban abridges their right to freedom of speech in political campaigns.

They called the city’s prohibition on certain campaign donations “one of the harshest contribution restrictions still standing after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United,” a case involving government restrictions on political spending.

The city administration said it hadn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t immediately comment.

The case comes as Mayor Richard Berry and one of his challengers, Pete Dinelli, face ethics complaints alleging they violated the ban.

The Journal reported last month that Berry’s re-election campaign had accepted about $17,000 in donations from people who own or work as executives for companies that have city contracts.

Dinelli, meanwhile, accepted about $200 in such contributions – from two partners in the Modrall Sperling law firm, which has a city contract. Dinelli has since donated the money to charity, though he doesn’t believe the contributions were improper.

Berry’s campaign has contended he didn’t violate the ban either.

Voters approved the contractor and business-entity prohibition in 2007, but this is the first year it’s come into play for a mayoral election. In 2009, all three candidates participated in public campaign financing.

The aim of the restriction was to limit corporate influence on city elections. Then-Councilor Michael Cadigan sponsored the measure.

This week’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Neal Greenbaum, Victor Jury, Dale Armstrong and Gail Armstrong – all of whom either have made or want to make contributions to candidates this year, even though they have management or ownership interests in local businesses with city contracts.

Their attorneys are Colin Hunter of the Barnett Law Firm and Al Park.

Their suit noted that the city bans contributions from contractors but not other groups, such as city employees, unions, union officials, nonprofit groups and lobbyists.

“By creating distinctions among speakers – particularly distinctions that do not advance any meaningful purpose – the authors of the legislation set it up to fail,” the suit says. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to pick and choose speakers.”

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