With much of the money flowing from one political action committee to another before reaching candidates, a web of liberal PACs gave more than $191,000 to eight Democrats in key state House races in the weeks before the June 3 primary election – effectively getting around the state’s campaign contribution limits.
Although just one of the eight Democrats in key House races had opposition in the primary, all of them will have Republican opponents in the fall. The money flowed as Democrats ramped up their efforts to hang onto control of the House, where they have a 37-33 majority.
Political action committees of House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association played major roles in the web of PACs, giving money both to individual candidates in key House races and to smaller PACs that in turn passed on nearly all the money to the same candidates.
The effect was that the dozen PACs involved were able to pump more money into the campaigns of the Democratic candidates than would be allowed by contribution limits from a single PAC to one candidate. The limit on a donation from a PAC to a candidate – or from a PAC to another PAC – is $5,200 per primary or general election.
For example, a total of about $74,000 flowed from the Ken Martinez Leadership Fund, the speaker’s PAC, to the eight candidates in key House races, either directly or through the smaller PACs. Had it given only directly to the candidates, the Martinez PAC would have been limited to a total of $41,600, or $5,200 for each of the eight.
“I’ve worked very hard to make sure everything we do is lawful and transparent,” Martinez said.
Some of the smaller PACs in the web are newly formed, and some appear to do nothing, or little, more than serve as funnels for large amounts of campaign cash from the larger PACs. Several of the smaller PACs are associated with Democratic legislators.
It is lawful for a PAC to donate to another PAC, but it is illegal for a PAC to evade the contribution limit by giving money to another PAC and directing it be given to a certain candidate.
The state attorney general or a district attorney can bring a civil or a criminal action for a violation of campaign finance law, including making or accepting an unlawful contribution. Knowingly violating the law is a misdemeanor, with maximum penalties of a $1,000 fine and year in jail.
Democrats say there was no direction or coordination among the PACs and say it’s widely known which Democrats are involved in key House races and need campaign cash. The PACs reported their donations to candidates and other PACs in reports of contributions and expenditures filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who chairs one of the smaller PACs involved, said, “As far as I know, everybody is playing by the rules. We know the rules. We passed the laws.”
Hopefuls cash in
In large part because of supersize political donations to then-Gov. Bill Richardson and the pay-to-play allegations that dogged him and his administration, the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2009 passed legislation to impose limits on the size of campaign contributions to candidates for state and county offices. Richardson signed the law, which took effect after the 2010 election.
It was the state’s most significant campaign finance reform in nearly 15 years.
While a PAC can contribute up to $5,200 to a legislative candidate for each primary or general election, the $5,200 for the primary must be given before that election. That’s why much of the money from the web of PACs flowed to the Democrats in key House races in the weeks – sometimes days – before the primary. The PACs will be able to give up to another $5,200 each to a candidate for the general election.
The Ken Martinez Leadership Fund and the trial lawyers PAC – formally known as the Committee on Individual Responsibility – reported contributing $63,800 directly to candidates in key House races and $83,200 to smaller PACs in April and May. The smaller PACs in turn donated nearly $128,000 to the candidates.
A third major player in the web – the Washington, D.C.-based DLCC New Mexico Committee – didn’t give money directly to candidates but pumped $46,800 into other PACs. The DLCC is the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The money from the three large PACs accounted for nearly all the money that the smaller PACs had taken in this year through May.
According to PAC and candidate reports of expenditures and contributions filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, the PACs in the web donated a total of at least $191,750 in April and May to:
House incumbents Emily Kane of Albuquerque, Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson of Albuquerque, Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces, and Stephanie Garcia Richard of Los Alamos, as well as House hopefuls Matthew McQueen of Lamy (near Santa Fe), Harrison Todacheene of Shiprock, Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces, and Catherine Begaye of Albuquerque.
Archuleta received at least $31,200 from the liberal PACs, Thomson $30,200, Kane $26,450, Garcia Richard $25,400, Ferrary $23,000, McQueen $22,900, Begaye $17,400 and Todacheene $15,200.
Saying she doesn’t have the financial backing of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers or big oil and gas donors, Thomson said the PAC donations help to level the playing field between her and her Republican opponent, former Rep. Conrad James.
“It’s the state of politics today,” Thomson said. “I’m not happy with it per se. I’m just playing by the rules as they are right now.”
James has received contributions from oil and gas interests but not from Charles and David Koch, major donors to conservative, libertarian and philanthropic causes nationwide. Koch Industries has given $5,000 to Susana PAC, formed by Gov. Susana Martinez to help get Republicans elected to the Legislature.
McQueen said he didn’t know anything about money going from one PAC to another before ending up in his campaign coffers, but he added:
“I’m pleased to get the support, and I’m confident everything has been done within the guidelines.”
Money was also shuffled among liberal PACs in 2012 before reaching House candidates. Republicans don’t appear to have a similar large web of interacting PACs, although there are PACs providing financial and other support to GOP candidates.
As of April 7, the Ken Martinez Leadership Fund had more than $114,000 in cash on hand, according to a report of expenditures and contributions filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Donors to the PAC include business interests, unions, lobbyists and others, including the trial lawyers PAC and the DLCC New Mexico Committee PAC, which works to get Democrats elected to the Legislature.
The trial lawyers PAC is funded primarily, if not entirely, by trial lawyers and has traditionally been a major donor to legislative campaigns.
It had nearly $240,000 in cash on hand as of May 5, according to a report of contributions and expenditures filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“We give to PACs that seem appropriate,” said Kristina Bogardus, president of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association. “What subsequent PACs do with their money is the decision of those PACs.”
In April and May, the Ken Martinez PAC donated at least $32,600 to the eight Democrats in the key House races. The trial lawyers PAC on May 15 contributed the maximum $5,200 each, or a total of $31,200, to six of the eight.
The Martinez PAC also contributed $5,200 each in May, or a total of $41,600, to eight smaller PACs in the web: the New Mexico House Majority Fund, WOLF PAC, Forward New Mexico, A Strong New Mexico PAC, New Mexico Defense Fund, Our New Mexico PAC, New Mexico Freedom and the Leadership PAC for (House Majority Leader) Rick Miera.
The trial lawyers PAC in May donated $5,200 each, or a total of $31,200, to six of the smaller PACs in the web.
The smaller PACs gave a total of $127,950 to the eight candidates in key House races, according to their reports of contributions and expenditures filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Martinez said he doesn’t direct what other PACs do with money from his committee.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to the money when I send it out,” he said. “I don’t know what candidates receive from other PACs.”
Martinez added, however, that his expectation is that the other PACs will be smart with the money from his committee, and he said the candidates in key races and most in need of funds are no secret.
“The targeted races have been so opined upon,” he said.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.