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Editorial: Campaign accountability in NM as elusive as piñata

If it’s three strikes and you’re out in baseball, New Mexico’s campaign finance system has moved on from traditional sports to piñata, with four state leaders taking a hit in recent weeks.

All while the official system pulls comprehensive accountability out of reach like a papier-mâché container of candy on a string.

The latest iteration of this bipartisan problem started with Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, indicted by state Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, on charges of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering for allegedly using campaign contributions to cover thousands of dollars in personal spending at casinos. She has pleaded not guilty.

Next up was state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, first outed by local television station KOB-TV for failing to report contributions to his re-election campaign last year. The total transgression grew from around $4,000 to more than $11,000 in a Journal story as the apologetic lawmaker redoubled his efforts to update his campaign finance reports.

Then came Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, one of the longest serving lawmakers in the Roundhouse, tagged by a former Republican party chairman in an opinion piece in the Journal for spending campaign contributions at the Nike factory outlet store in Santa Fe, on Internet and satellite service from DirecTV, on a minor surgery co-pay, for a watch battery and band, and to help a “needy family.” When contacted by the Journal he said he was working on amending these reports in a timely manner to fix “clerical errors” and “honest mistakes.”

And most recently was longtime state Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Hatch, who was dimed out by Madalena for allegedly overpaying himself for loan debt. Nuñez says he is confident that he has done nothing wrong but plans to fix his campaign reports as well.

Right now, New Mexico relies on the honor system – and as the above examples show, tipsters – to ensure compliance with campaign contribution and spending laws. While the system is online and has some search capabilities, state law requires that only 10 percent of all campaign finance reports filed be audited for possible violations and inconsistencies by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Madalena said last week that “New Mexico needs a better way to report campaign finances. The office of the Secretary of State should review 100 percent of campaign finance reports as they are submitted. A modern campaign finance reporting office could identify clerical errors and honest mistakes and prevent potential misuse of campaign funds, just as the federal system does for candidates for federal office.”

The Legislature should follow his lead. Otherwise, true campaign finance accountability will remain as elusive as trying to get candy by putting on a blindfold and swinging in the dark.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.