Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
With over a month to go, the Santa Fe mayoral election has already included ethics complaints filed by all sides over alleged campaign conduct.
Since the start of the election season, three complaints have been filed with the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board. The board has dismissed all but one complaint, which it will hear at its upcoming Sept. 28 meeting.
However, the board’s integrity has been called into question, with accusations that board members have a conflict of interest with a mayoral candidate’s law firm and campaign donations.
Justin Miller, chair of the board, said the board member who belonged to the same law firm representing Mayor Alan Webber recused herself from participating in the board’s decision. He said in the most recent complaint that a board member was accused of donating to Webber’s campaign, which he said is unfounded.
Board members are prohibited from participating in city elections, he said, and doing so would disqualify them from serving on the board.
Mayoral candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson filed a complaint against Webber, accusing him of using city funds to support his mayoral campaign. The complaint included ads with Webber’s campaign logo advertising an event with the Santa Fe City Fire Department.
This complaint was dismissed by the board because it lacked the proper statute number, but a separate complaint filed by Union Protectíva de Santa Fe highlighted the same issue. In addition to the event with the city’s fire department, Union Protectíva also accused Webber of bullying and creating a conflict of interest with the law firm he retained.
A board member belonging to this law firm recused herself from the board’s decision involving this complaint.
Webber also filed a complaint accusing Union Protectíva, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2951 and American Legion Post 1 of electioneering for advertisements the groups took out against Webber’s handling of the Santa Fe Plaza’s Obelisk controversy. This complaint was ultimately dismissed because the board said the groups weren’t political organizations subject to campaign disclosure rules.
Miller said the board has received more complaints than it usually does for an election, but these types of accusations aren’t unheard of. “Every complaint is unique, so it’s kind of hard to say ‘this is a typical complaint,’ but we have had complaints in the past similar to this, regarding allegations of improper campaigning and communications,” he said.
The city’s ordinance spells out how the Ethics and Campaign Review Board handles complaints.
Once a complaint is received, the person named in the complaint has 10 days to submit a response. The complaint, and any response materials, are submitted to the board.
The board then schedules a meeting as quickly as possible to go over the complaint and review it for “legal sufficiency,” Miller said. The board must review whether the complaint was filed correctly, including its timeliness, and the city ordinance the complaint covers, whether it was filed just to harass the other party, and more.
Alex Curtas, communications director for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, said the office doesn’t have a role in local municipality ethics complaints, so he can’t comment on them specifically.
In general, he said there are vast differences in the ways municipalities deal with campaign practices and violations. This topic was discussed recently at a legislative interim committee hearing and it seems the Legislature is interested in creating more uniformity in these processes.
He said the office would be “happy to work with them” on it if it comes to fruition.
Martinez Johnson said the purpose of the ethics board is to protect the voters, not the candidates.
“The troublesome topic is, you have a thread unraveling here and what that thread is, is the people who are on this ethics board,” she said, referring to the conflicts of interest arising on the board.
She said Webber is being represented by state Rep. Brian Egolf’s law firm. She said the ethics board member who is in the law firm recused herself, but another board member admitted to donating to Egolf’s campaign, and did not recuse themselves.
She said that to donate to the very firm that is presenting to the ethics board is a conflict of interest.
“My basic question is, who is policing … the ethics board?” she said. “Are you asking the candidates to be the police?”
She also added that she’s not a lawyer and, when she presented her complaint, she didn’t know the statute numbers, which hindered her complaint. She said the average person, not just lawyers, should be able to bring a complaint before the board.
“I think that we felt inequity here for the everyday citizen (who) should be able to file a complaint that should be investigated to determine if it’s valid or not,” she said.
Union Protectíva President Virgil Vigil echoed Martinez Johnson’s concerns and said the board should be representative of the citizens of Santa Fe, not just lawyers.
He said that, when Martinez Johnson’s complaint was thrown out over a statute number, the lawyers on the board had enough time to look up that statute, but chose not to. He said he thinks those actions were biased and the board found an easy opportunity to throw out the complaint – which it did.
“We should have a committee that’s representative of the city,” Vigil said. “Santa Fe doesn’t have just attorneys, we have a lot of educated people that live in the city. It (the board) should be a diverse committee, not stacked with any one type of group.”
Five of the six members of the board are lawyers.
Webber’s campaign declined to comment on any conflict of interest issues with the board.
The only candidate who has not filed an ethics complaint is Councilwoman JoAnne Vigil Coppler. Sisto Abeyta, campaign manager for Vigil Coppler, said everybody has the right to file an ethics complaint and question what’s ethical.
Abeyta said the committee has had difficult decisions to make in regards to that, but Vigil Coppler also recognized there are some adjustments that need to be made on how complaints are processed and presented. He said she plans to do this after the election.