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PRC commissioner pays himself to campaign

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — State Public Regulation Commissioner Ben Hall is using public financing for his candidacy to pay himself and his fiancee to campaign for his re-election.

Hall paid himself and his fiancee, Maria Cottom, nearly $7,000 for “campaign work” over a month-long period, according to his campaign-finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

HALL: "I'm not trying to hide anything"

HALL: “I’m not trying to hide anything”

Hall said he pays himself and Cottom $25 per hour, but that he pays himself only for campaign work after 5 p.m. on Fridays and on weekends. Hall earns $90,000 a year as a PRC member.

“If I didn’t hire and pay myself, I would have to hire someone else,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “What is the big damn deal?”

The commissioner said he also paid himself when he campaigned for election to the PRC in 2010 and that the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees public financing of PRC campaigns, has approved the arrangement.

“Everything I have done is legal and aboveboard,” Hall said. “I’m not trying to hide anything.”

It isn’t unusual for a public official to pay a family member for campaign work, but it is for a candidate to pay himself.

Hall also has paid nearly $2,400 to PRC employees, including his executive assistant, for campaign work and expenses. He said the workers don’t campaign on PRC time.

Hall, a Republican from Ruidoso and former member of the state House of Representatives, faces Democrat Sandy Jones, a former public regulation commissioner from Williamsburg, in the Nov. 4 general election. At stake is the PRC seat that represents southwest New Mexico.

Hall has received nearly $68,000 in public funds to finance his campaign and had spent more than $52,000 as of Oct. 6. The public funds come from fees levied by the PRC on companies it regulates, including electric and other utilities. The money goes into a public election fund administered by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Public financing for PRC candidates was put in place beginning in 2006 in a bid to try to reduce the influence of campaign contributors on decisions by the commission.

The language in the state Voter Action Act, which provides for public funding of PRC and appellate court races, is broad when it comes to how money can be used, saying only it must be spent for “campaign-related purposes.”

Jones opted not to accept public funds and instead is financing his campaign with private contributions. As of Oct. 6, he had raised about $44,000 and spent about $25,000.

According to Hall’s campaign-finance reports, he and his fiancee were paid a total of $6,966 for campaign work from Sept. 8 to Oct. 6. The individual payments ranged from $80 to $750.

The nature of the work was specified in only a few cases. Hall and his fiancee received $335 for a “Hatch meet and greet,” $335 for a “T or C forum,” $615 for a “Deming forum” and $540 for “Deming, Columbus.”

Hall also received $862 to remove his campaign signs from the primary election in nine counties, according to the campaign-finance reports.

From June 29 to Aug. 30, Hall and his fiancee were paid a total of $12,092 for unspecified campaign expenses. The individual payments ranged from $146 to $4,721. Hall said the money was for mileage at 25 cents per mile. The mileage reimbursement isn’t meant to cover fuel purchases.

There were other campaign expenditures for travel expenses by Hall, including meals, lodging and fuel. Several meals were at restaurants in Santa Fe, where the PRC is located, and in Ruidoso, where Hall lives. He said all the meals were campaign related.

Hall’s campaign-finance reports show a total of $2,375 for campaign work and expenses has been paid to his top aide, Yolanda Dominguez; the PRC division director for consumer relations, Jim Williamson; and PRC investigator Albert Dominguez.

The campaign has paid a total of more than $11,000 for printing, advertising and signs.

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