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Friday, September 14, 2007
Finance Reports Rife With Flaws
By Sean Olson
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
A Board of Ethics audit of Councilor Don Harris' 2005 election campaign found about 150 violations in his finance reports, most of which Harris attributes to sloppy bookkeeping.
Nearly $14,000 in expenditures lacked corroborating documents such as invoices and about $7,000 in excess contributions were reported, according to the audit.
The city Board of Ethics auditor took issue with 72 contributions made to the Harris campaign, and most of those contributions violated multiple rules.
Harris disputes most of the excess contribution allegations, explaining that he was in a regular election and then a runoff.
"This is messy, but not dirty," Harris said in an interview Thursday. "I was trying to comply, but I wasn't trying hard enough. I apologize."
The maximum fine for each violation is $500. Assistant City Attorney Mark Shoesmith said the ethics board could levy fines totaling $75,000 if it found him culpable on all allegations and chose to levy the maximum penalty.
Shoesmith said the city still hadn't received documentation for $13,733 worth of Harris campaign purchases partially for a new bike and funds spent repairing his car after an accident.
Shoesmith acknowledged some of the violations are minor.
The audit dings Harris for nine types of alleged ethics violations in his campaign finances.
"I've never seen anybody do any of those things," Shoesmith said. "He's a trailblazer."
The audit was ordered after a local political group filed a complaint with the ethics board.
Harris said in an interview Thursday that he was guilty of sloppy accounting during the hectic pace of his campaign, but never intentionally violated any part of the city charter.
A hearing before the ethics board on Sept. 24 will allow Harris a chance to publicly defend his finance reporting.
The board will then decide whether to reprimand Harris, fine him or both.
The board also could decide to order Harris to reimburse donors for excess contributions, donate the money to charity or deposit it in the city's general fund.
If documentation isn't good enough to support Harris' nearly $14,000 in expenditures, the same rule would apply, Shoesmith said.
Harris denied that he had not been forthcoming with documents supporting his purchases. He estimated he was still looking for documents corroborating less than $1,000 worth of his campaign spending to turn over to the city.
Other documents, such as credit card statements showing businesses where he spent campaign funds, were dismissed for not providing enough evidence that the purchases were campaign-related, Shoesmith said.
Harris said his credit card statements and other account information should be enough when he doesn't have an invoice.
"At some point you should just trust the candidate," he said.
Jim Lowe, New Mexicans for Democracy president, called the report "devastating" to Harris.
"If Mr. Harris takes a rational look at this, he might want to go ahead and submit his resignation," Lowe said.
Lowe's group filed the complaint that led to the audit.
Some of the violations outlined in the audit include:
Not reporting five campaign contributions worth a total of $2,550. Harris said most of that was deposited by mistake and quickly removed from the account.
Not reporting contributions in a timely manner. Harris missed quarterly reporting deadlines because, he said, he had not been aware he had to finalize online changes to his reports.
Using more than one bank account for his campaign.
Exceeding the contribution limit of $480 per person on 37 occasions for a total of $6,990.
Reporting the wrong amount for contributions.
Duplicating contributions in reports.
Not notifying the city clerk's office of a June 29, 2006 fundraiser, where most of the problematic contributions were obtained. The fundraiser was held to clear campaign debt.
Harris said most of the mistakes were administrative in nature, rather than ethical.
He denied exceeding contribution limits. He said because he was involved in two elections the general election and a runoff election that he believed the contributions could be doubled from $480 per person to $960 a person.
Harris reimbursed a $1,000 donor $40 and a $980 donor $20 following the June 2006 fundraiser.
Other violations were simply for disorganized reporting, Harris said.
Harris' accountant, Demesia Padilla, said Harris wasn't trying to hide any of his campaign finances, which is why the audit could find so many minor mistakes. "The documentation is there," she said.
Shoesmith agreed many of the violations were minor, but said it was strange to see so many. "This whole thing has sort of an accumulated effect problem," Shoesmith said.