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Winter plans new office unit on campaign finance

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Brad Winter announced this week that he will create a new unit in his office to better enforce and explain New Mexico’s campaign finance laws to legislators and other candidates, after questions were raised last year about several public officials’ campaign spending practices.

The creation of the Education, Ethics and Compliance Unit will allow the Secretary of State’s Office to more closely scrutinize candidates’ campaign spending, Winter said.

That will be done by revamping the office’s structure, shifting some staffers to new positions and filling vacant positions, said Ken Ortiz, the secretary of state’s chief of staff. Each staffer in the new unit will be responsible for monitoring the campaign spending of about 20 legislators and answering any questions the lawmakers might have.

Previously, there had been just two staffers to cover campaign filings of all 112 legislators, plus other state and county officials and candidates.

In a Thursday discussion with the Journal editorial board, Winter said he hopes the restructuring leads to a better understanding of how campaign funds can be spent – and fewer questionable expenditures.

“We’re hoping that changes,” Winter said.

He also said the changes announced this week by the Secretary of State’s Office will allow for more campaign finance reports – possibly up to 30 percent – to be audited.

State law currently requires that only 10 percent of all campaign finance reports filed be audited by the Secretary of State’s Office for possible violations and inconsistencies.

Campaign finance issues have dominated recent New Mexico headlines, prompting some government transparency groups and legislators to call for overhauling the state’s laws governing ethics, campaign finance and political spending oversight.

Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran resigned from office in October and pleaded guilty to criminal charges that she misused campaign contributions to pay for a gambling habit.

In addition, several lawmakers have faced questions about whether their campaign expenditures violate the state’s Campaign Reporting Act, which governs the use of political contributions.

The Secretary of State’s Office is still looking into the campaign spending of at least three current and former legislators.

Rep. Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, was accused overpaying himself for loan debt, and Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, reported spending campaign money in 2013 to pay for surgery expenses and attire from a Nike factory store and to help a “needy family” in his legislative district.

In addition, former Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, reported spending $6,500 in campaign money on constituent meetings, office space and political consulting after he resigned from the Legislature last year.

Winter was appointed as New Mexico’s secretary of state last month by Gov. Susana Martinez, after Duran’s resignation from office. Since he took over, Winter’s office has released new lobbyist guidelines and made updates to an online campaign finance database in an attempt to improve transparency.