SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board voted 4-0 on Monday to dismiss a complaint filed against mayoral candidate Patti Bushee by her former campaign manager.
The complaint from Tarin Nix, who served as Bushee’s campaign manager for about a month last summer, alleged that a $1,750 check written to her violated the city’s new public campaign finance code, and that Bushee and her campaign team made “false and inaccurate statements” about campaign funding.
Mayoral candidates who qualify are eligible to receive $60,000 in public funding. Bushee initially embarked on a campaign seeking private financing but later decided to pursue public financing.
After the board’s vote, Bushee called the complaint a red herring intended to disrupt her campaign.
“I’m just glad the political theater is over,” she said. “It’s obvious this was political. When you have the initial co-chairman of Javier Gonzales’ campaign step up and speak, and a former candidate come up and speak, you have all the right theater.”
Bushee was referring to Morty Simon, whose wife, Carol Oppenheimer, is currently co-chair of Gonzales’ mayoral campaign, and Bushee’s colleague on the city council, Rebecca Wurzburger, who dropped out of the race for mayor days after the city clerk’s office determined she didn’t qualify for public financing.
Both Simon and Wurzburger addressed the board Monday, telling them that the complaint was sufficient to show probable cause that violations were committed.
Wurzburger and Gonzales together filed a separate complaint against Bushee over the same issues but withdrew it last week.
Gonzales’ campaign released a statement after the board meeting.
“The Board’s decision was not an affirmation of Patti’s actions, but rather recognition of a ‘hole’ in the ordinance and, therefore, their own inability to enforce both the letter and the spirit of the public finance system,” it states. He claimed Bushee’s actions cast a “cloud of doubt over her credibility.”
The public financing ordinance is being applied for the first time to mayoral campaigns for the March 2014 City election. Councilor Bill Dimas is the third remaining mayoral candidate.
Ethics board members said Bushee committed no violations.
“I don’t see it,” said Roderick Thompson, vice president of the board who made the motion to dismiss the complaint. “I don’t see what part of the ordinance was violated.”
Board member Ruth Kovnat seconded the motion. “Although there surely are gaps in the finance code, I don’t see the complaint as a violation of anything in the present code,” she said. “The code does not speak to the period before a candidate decides to seek public financing.”
Attorney David Garcia, representing Nix, said it was enough that Bushee recently signed a sworn affidavit that she had only made expenditures from “seed money” – a pot of up to $6,000 in privately raised cash that publicly financed candidates can raise and spend early on to start their campaigns.
Bushee has said she wrote the June check to Nix from her personal account and then sought advice on how to handle the payment after she decided to seek public financing.
Garcia alleged that Bushee had knowledge of the requirements, pointing to a memo from then-city attorney Geno Zamora dated June 12 that indicated a candidate’s campaign starts when he or she holds events or begins soliciting contributions.
“To plead ignorance is not right, not when you already have something from the city attorney,” he said.
Nix also addressed the board, saying she had worked on 30 campaigns in seven years and had never been placed in an ethical predicament like she was during her short stint with Bushee’s campaign.
Nix said that when she was asked last June to return the check made out to her for $1,750 so that it could be paid out of a different fund, it “set off alarms” that Bushee was violating the public campaign finance code.
“I didn’t know how to respond,” she said, adding that she still has the check in her purse because she wants clarification on what to do with it. “No matter what your decision, I’d still like an opinion on what to do with the check,” she said.
A Bushee staffer called Nix in November and asked her to “swap checks” so the payment was noted as coming from Bushee’s seed money account. Nix contended that the money paid to her wasn’t initially reported by Bushee, constituted a contribution by Bushee to her own campaign that exceeded the $100 limit for seed money donors and would have put Bushee over the $6,000 seed spending limit.
Bushee eventually reported the $1,750 payment to Nix as a November campaign expense.
After Bushee decided to seek public financing, she sought advice from Common Cause New Mexico, the nonprofit good-government advocacy organization which supports public campaign financing. A Common Cause official previously has provided support for how Bushee handled the matter, given how she changed her plan from private to public financing early in her campaign effort.
“Every step of the way, I took the advice of attorneys,” Bushee said.
Interim City Attorney Kelley Brennan said at the end of Monday’s hearing that she found it “disturbing” that candidates sought advice from outside sources. “It would be better if it came from the people responsible for enforcement,” she said.
At the suggestion of board member Kovnat, the board agreed to explore the idea of forming a committee to address the holes in the public campaign finance code.
The dispute over Nix’s complaint apparently continued in the hallway after the board voted to dismiss. Bushee said a verbal altercation ensued between her and Nix’s attorneys.