SANTA FE, N.M. — Today, we are catching up on public financing of campaigns for the state Public Regulation Commission, a fight over audits of four troubled chartered schools and a judge poised to succeed himself despite losing a retention election.
Lynda Lovejoy, unopposed in the November election for a seat on the PRC, spent nearly $26,000 in public financing on the election.
Under state law, PRC candidates – including those without election opposition – are eligible for public financing of their campaigns. The money comes from fees levied on PRC-regulated companies.
Lovejoy, of Crownpoint, received $27,574 in public financing for the November election and spent $25,603, according to her campaign finance report filed Dec. 4. The unspent money was returned to the Secretary of State’s Office, as required by law.
Lovejoy paid nearly $13,300 – or more than half of what she received in public financing – to campaign consultant and lobbyist Mark Fleisher for consulting, so-called robo calls to potential voters and redesign of an election brochure.
Fleisher’s lobbying clients include Sacred Wind Communications, which is regulated by the PRC.
Fleisher also worked on the campaigns of Sandy Jones of Williamsburg, who was elected to the PRC in November, and Karen Montoya of Albuquerque, who was elected to the commission in 2012.
As of Jan. 1 – when Lovejoy and Jones take office – Fleisher’s clients will make up a majority of the five-member PRC.
Pat Lyons, unopposed for re-election to the PRC in November, reported spending $19,625 of his $29,444 in public financing for the election.
A few days before the election, he spent $644 on “tires for campaign truck,” according to his campaign’s Dec. 4 finance report. The purchase came five months after he reported spending another $877 on tires.
Legislation to sharply reduce or eliminate public financing for unopposed candidates is expected to be introduced during the Legislature’s 60-day session beginning in January.
Audit firm responds
The national accounting firm of Moss Adams is defending its audits of the four Southwest Learning Center charter schools in Albuquerque.
“We are confident the facts will show that our previous audits were conducted in compliance with all applicable laws and professional standards,” Steven Keene, partner in charge of the Albuquerque office of Moss Adams, wrote in a letter Nov. 25 to the state Public Education Department.
The department has said it is evaluating whether Moss Adams knew or should have known of possible misuse and embezzlement of public funds at the Southwest Learning Center schools.
The FBI has seized documents from at least one of the schools, and a state audit found the schools spent $1.1 million to lease aircraft from a company owned by the schools’ then-head administrator. The schools have an aviation program.
The schools’ business manager, who has identified himself as a whistle-blower, filed a lawsuit last week alleging the schools misspent several millions of dollars.
The Public Education Department has raised the possibility that it or the Southwest Learning Center schools may sue Moss Adams. The firm, which has audited the department and charter schools since 2006, resigned after the threat of litigation.
Judge on track
State District Judge Albert J. Mitchell Jr. of Tucumcari is a step closer to keeping his job despite losing his bid for retention in the November election.
Mitchell has applied to fill the vacancy that will be created Jan. 1 by his election loss, and a judicial nominating commission Thursday recommended Mitchell and former state District Judge Donald C. Schutte, also of Tucumcari, for possible appointment to the vacancy. Mitchell and Schutte were the only two applicants.
The appointment will be made by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. Mitchell, the Republican candidate, defeated Schutte, the Democrat, for the judgeship in the 2008 election.
Schutte, who had served in the judgeship for only about a year before his loss to Mitchell, helped fund a political committee that opposed Mitchell’s retention in the November election.
The state Supreme Court rejected a request from the political committee that it prohibit the nominating commission from considering Mitchell’s application. The justices, however, left open the possibility that if Mitchell is appointed by the governor, it may be willing to revisit the issue of whether judges can fill vacancies created by their losses in retention elections.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.