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Mayoral candidates forced to return some contributions

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

After Albuquerque mayoral candidate Brian Colón filed his first campaign finance report, he issued a statement touting the $357,000 he raised and the support he received from “some of the area’s key stakeholders.”

Albuquerque mayoral candidate Brian Colon

Albuquerque mayoral candidate Brian Colon

But Colón has returned $5,150 to one of those key stakeholders – Attorney General Hector Balderas – after the Secretary of State’s Office determined that the contribution wasn’t legal because it was made through Balderas’ campaign fund.

The new way of looking at donations has been a problem for several donors and candidates this year.

At issue is the money candidates for statewide, legislative and county races raise that they then turn around and donate to candidates running in municipal, school board and special district elections. There is no prohibition against someone like Balderas donating his own personal money to a municipal or school board candidate, for instance.

“The Office of the Secretary of State informed our campaign of a new interpretation of statute, and we promptly requested and returned funds to the proper account and amended our report,” said Caroline Buerkle, spokeswoman for the Balderas for New Mexico campaign.

Colón’s campaign issued a written statement saying that it quickly honored the request to return the contribution.

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Balderas isn’t alone.

Deputy Secretary of State John Blair said last week that his agency is aware of other public officials who made similar contributions, in violation of the state’s Campaign Reporting Act.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, donated $500 in campaign funds to mayoral candidate Dan Lewis; Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, donated $1,000 in campaign funds to Lewis; and former state Rep. Paul Pacheco, an Albuquerque Republican, donated $1,000 in campaign funds to Lewis.

Lewis’ brother, state Rep. Tim Lewis, donated $5,000 from his campaign funds.

Lewis refunded those contributions in late March and early April.

“I’m grateful for over $250,000 given by hundreds of people who believe in our bold solutions to renew our city,” Dan Lewis said. “The city’s Open and Ethical Election Code and state election laws ensure transparency and accountability – we receive contributions, report them, and in a few instances give contributions back, and then report them as well.”

A Journal review of campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office and the City Clerk’s Office turned up three other instances of campaign funds being donated to candidates in Albuquerque’s coming municipal election.

Lieutenant Gov. John Sanchez donated $875 in campaign funds to Jose Orozco, a candidate for City Council. Former state Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, donated $1,000 to Dan Lewis. And County Commissioner Lonnie Talbert donated $500 to mayoral candidate Wayne Johnson.

“I did not even know that I could not do that,” Talbert told the Journal. “I’ll ask Wayne (Johnson) for the check back.”

Through a spokesman, Espinoza said she does not believe the contribution is inconsistent with state law.

Espinoza ran against Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in last year’s general election.

Among other things, the Campaign Reporting Act specifies what candidates can and cannot do with their campaign funds.

In one section, the law says that donating campaign funds to a political committee or to another candidate seeking election to public office is permissible. But in the definitions section of the law, “election” is defined as “any primary, general or statewide special election in New Mexico and includes county and judicial retention elections but excludes municipal, school board and special district elections.”

Blair said the Secretary of State’s Office began reviewing those sections of law in the last month.

“We did look at that and determined it’s not legal for contributions to be made by campaign committees in a municipal, school board or special district election,” Blair said. “This is a relatively new interpretation.”

Rod Adair, a former Republican state senator who has previously worked in the Secretary of State’s Office, said he disagrees with the new interpretation of the law. Adair pointed to a 2009 advisory letter from the Attorney General’s Office that concluded that such contributions are not prohibited by state law.

“The Act does not make a distinction between a federal, state or local candidate and a common sense reading of the law is that a donation to a candidate for any public office – federal, state or local is permissible,” the advisory letter says.

Blair said that as his agency learns about the contributions, it is reaching out to the elected officials or candidates who made the improper donations and advising them that they should request that the contributions be refunded.

Blair stressed that there’s nothing in the law that would preclude Balderas or any other state official or former candidate from donating to a municipal or school board election. They just aren’t allowed to donate from their campaign funds.

Such donations have occurred in the past.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s re-election campaign gave $15,000 in 2015 to then-Albuquerque Public Schools candidate Peggy Muller-Aragón, who prevailed in the race.

And in 2013, former state Senate candidate David Doyle donated $2,000 in campaign funds to Mayor Richard Berry’s re-election campaign.

Blair said that because this is a new interpretation of state law, the Secretary of State’s Office doesn’t intend to take action in those prior cases.