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Utility company funded political group last year

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A group that spent more than $130,000 on political advertisements in hotly contested Democratic legislative primary election races last year was funded solely by the parent firm of New Mexico’s largest utility company.

The disclosure that PNM Resources – the parent firm of Public Service Company of New Mexico – had financed the actions of the Council for a Competitive New Mexico was made Friday as part of a settlement agreement that involved the New Mexico Ethics Commission agreeing to drop a lawsuit it had filed in December.

The Ethics Commission also agreed to waive any civil penalties against the group and will not require it to register as a political committee.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris said securing disclosure of the group’s donors was the lawsuit’s main objective.

“The commission is committed to improving transparency in New Mexico elections, and ensuring that the businesses and individuals who seek to influence New Mexico’s elections through funding campaign-related ads at least do so in the broad daylight,” Farris said in a statement.

The Council for a Competitive New Mexico had previously argued its contributors did not have to be disclosed, claiming their donations did not meet the state’s Campaign Reporting Act’s definition of a contribution.

Charlie Spies, the group’s Washington, D.C.-based attorney, said Friday it had entered into the settlement agreement in order to avoid the burden of litigation.

“CCNM was established to promote economic growth policy and improved education to better the lives of everyday New Mexicans, and acted in good faith while engaging in policy advocacy,” Spies said in a statement.

The Council for a Competitive New Mexico publicly reported spending nearly $131,000 on campaign mailers, radio ads and phone calls in May and early June 2020 in support of five incumbent Democratic senators, with some of that money also being spent on mailers that targeted four of their primary election opponents.

But, at least until entering into the settlement agreement, it did not disclose its funding sources for the campaign-related expenditures.

Four of the incumbent senators – Richard Martinez of Ojo Caliente, Clemente Sanchez of Grants, Gabriel Ramos of Silver City and John Arthur Smith of Deming – ended up being ousted in the June 2020 primary election.

The fifth senator, Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, rebuffed a primary challenge and won reelection to a new four-year term in the November general election.

In a statement, PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said the company supported the Council for a Competitive New Mexico’s mission to “ensure that voters have the facts regarding key energy and economic issues that will impact our customers and the state as a whole.”

The lawsuit filed by the Ethics Commission was seen as a test case for 2019 changes to New Mexico’s campaign finance laws that were aimed at requiring more disclosure from independent expenditure groups, or those that spend money on political ads, but do not coordinate with candidates or campaigns.

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