Ex-commissioner’s ethics hearing proceeds without her - Albuquerque Journal

Ex-commissioner’s ethics hearing proceeds without her

Former Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty

A hearing to decide whether a former Bernalillo County commissioner erred in accepting a lobbyist’s large campaign contribution proceeded Tuesday even though the onetime commissioner was a no-show.

Charlene Pyskoty skipped the Bernalillo County Code of Conduct Review Board hearing over what her lawyer argued was improper notification. Attorney Jacob Candelaria said Pyskoty received only seven days’ notice instead of the required 10 before Tuesday’s proceeding, which was itself a continuance of the case’s original Jan. 17 hearing. A county spokeswoman said Candelaria had confirmed Jan. 17 he and Pyskoty would be available to resume the hearing Jan. 31, but she confirmed official hearing “notice” was not sent until a week ago.

The board proceeded with an hourslong and sometimes messy hearing anyway, reaching a decision that Vice Chair Kevin Sanders said it would release in writing by Feb. 8.

The case centers on a $5,000 in-kind contribution Pyskoty received from lobbyist Vanessa Alarid’s firm during Pyskoty’s failed 2022 reelection bid. A citizen alleged that the contribution — by far the largest Pyskoty reported — violated a county code of conduct provision barring elected officials and candidates from taking over $1,000 from “restricted” donors. Complainant Carl Peterson alleged Alarid is a restricted donor — which includes those “seeking official action … by an elected official” — because she represents Western Albuquerque Land Holdings. WALH requires various county approvals for Santolina, its massive planned community on the Southwest Mesa.

He also alleged that Pyskoty failed to properly report the contribution.

Peterson filed the complaint just days before the County Commission chose Alarid’s husband, Antonio “Moe” Maestas, to fill a New Mexico Senate seat vacated early by Candelaria. Peterson wanted Pyskoty to recuse herself from that vote, saying she had a conflict of interest. Pyskoty ultimately participated and was part of the majority in a 3-2 vote to appoint Maestas over several other candidates.

Pyskoty left office at the end of 2022 after one term.

Peterson’s attorney, Sara Berger, questioned witnesses Tuesday about Alarid’s contribution and her work on WALH’s behalf.

Pyskoty’s campaign manager Tarin Nix testified that Alarid’s $5,000 contribution came via a “credit” Alarid had with a local print shop. Nix said she and Alarid had been speaking about Pyskoty’s race when Alarid told her she could use the credit, which Nix later combined with campaign cash to fund an election mailer.

Deputy County Manager Enrico Gradi, meanwhile, testified that Alarid had facilitated an August 2022 meeting between WALH representatives, then-Commissioner Pyskoty and county staff so the developers could “make a pitch” for a Santolina-related application slated to go before the county commissioners.

While Pyskoty did not appear and Candelaria did not present or cross-examine any witnesses on her behalf, the former commissioner’s voice was still heard.

Berger played an audio recording of Pyskoty’s remarks from the case’s Dec. 2 preliminary hearing.

Pyskoty said then she reported the contribution as soon as she learned Alarid had helped pay for a mailer but that it was actually an “independent expenditure” separate from her campaign that never should have gone on her reports. She contended that she was not a “savvy or seasoned” politician. She noted that she recused herself from a subsequent vote involving Santolina but that she saw no conflict of interest in helping appoint Maestas to the state Senate.

“It seems really convoluted to say his wife, who is a lobbyist for WALH, had something to do with lobbying for his appointment,” Pyskoty said in December.

Pyskoty last week sought state District Court intervention in the case, alleging that her vote to appoint Maestas is protected by “legislative immunity.” Her request that a judge rule parts of the code of conduct unconstitutional and bar the ethics board or anyone else from enforcing them is still pending.

Berger, however, said Tuesday that there is not much distinction as Alarid is closely connected to both votes.

“Even though (Pyskoty) acknowledges that there’s a conflict of interest in voting on matters affecting a lobbyist’s client, it is implausible to defend how a failure to recuse herself from voting to appoint a restricted donor’s husband to a very prestigious legislative position is not also a conflict of interest,” she said.

Alarid did not attend Tuesday’s meeting despite what Berger said were multiple attempts to serve her.

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