Both candidates running for secretary of state this year have faced allegations of wrongdoing, though all complaints filed against them thus far have been dismissed.
However, the Secretary of State’s Office has cautioned both Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Republican Nora Espinoza. Both were advised to ensure that future reports “accurately reflect” all campaign expenses and in-kind donations. Espinoza was also asked to ensure the names and purposes attached to donations and spending were included.
Oliver and Espinoza are vying in the Nov. 8 election to replace Republican Brad Winter, who has held the secretary of state’s job since Republican Dianna Duran resigned in October 2015 while facing criminal charges related to abusing the state’s campaign finance reporting system. NMPolitics.net profiled Espinoza and Oliver last week.
Here’s a rundown of the complaints and other allegations in the race:
Espinoza’s radio interview
The Democratic Party of New Mexico filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office at the beginning of the year accusing Espinoza of violating the Governmental Conduct Act (GCA) when she urged people listening to a radio broadcast to visit her official legislative website to find her contact information and reach out to her.
“A legislator or public officer or employee shall use the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest and not to obtain personal benefits or pursue private interests,” the complaint reads, citing a section of the GCA.
Espinoza responded that the email address provided on her website is actually her personal email address. Legislators aren’t required to use an official government email account.
“At no point did I direct anyone to the legislative website in support of, or opposition to, any political campaign on my behalf, or on behalf of any individual, for any office whatsoever,” Espinoza wrote to Winter’s office. “I merely confirmed that anyone wishing to contact me could do so at my personal email address, which, among other locations, also appears on the legislative website. I was not asked for, nor did I even provide, the URL of the legislative website.”
Winter, in March, found no violation.
“A legislator may choose to post their personal contact information on the website,” the letter of determination reads.
Spending in support of Oliver
In June, Zach Cook, a Roswell attorney and the District 56 representative in the N.M. House, filed a complaint alleging that a $10,000 contribution to a political action committee that supported Oliver’s 2014 campaign for SOS exceeded contribution limits and that Oliver improperly did not report this contribution. (Oliver narrowly lost to Duran that year.)
Karen Mendenhall, of the Albuquerque Mendenhall Law Firm, responded on behalf Of Oliver, saying contribution limits apply only to “coordinated communications.” The contribution to the PAC was an independent expenditure, which, because it was “not a contribution to a candidate,” means contribution limits do not apply and Oliver didn’t have to report it.
Further, Mendenhall said the accusation was baseless because “it is not timely.” It was filed on June 22 of this year, and the 2014 general election was held on Nov. 4 of that year.
“The Campaign Reporting Act requires that any written complaint of an alleged violation of the Act must be filed with the SOS ‘prior to 90 days after an election,’” Mendenhall wrote.
Winter agreed. “I conclude that the complaint is untimely and our office is unable to proceed with an investigation,” he wrote.
Regarding the allegation of failing to report a contribution, Winter also agreed that Oliver’s campaign had not violated the Campaign Reporting Act, with one caveat.
“The Toulouse-Oliver campaign is advised to ensure that all future campaign reports submitted accurately reflect all expenditures and in-kind contributions, earmarked or otherwise, in accordance with the Act,” he wrote. “Failure to do so will result in a false or incomplete report and expose the campaign to the penalties imposed by law.”
Espinoza’s finance reports
On July 20, Robert Lara, an attorney with Las Cruces’ Roybal-Mack and Cordova, and treasurer for the Democratic Party of New Mexico, filed a complaint against Espinoza accusing her of multiple violations of the Campaign Reporting Act. Specifically, he alleged that Espinoza:
- “failed to properly disclose expenditures.” She failed “to properly identify specific vendors and purchases for credit card reimbursement payments,” he wrote. Examples he gave included “NHCSL-taxi-airport-meal” for “Reported Purpose” and “Hotel – Federated convention.”
- failed to itemize expenditures. Examples Lara gave include “Travel expenses-campaigning,” “T-shirts, decorations etc parade” and “Campaign expenses-hotel, gas etc” under “Reported Purpose.”
- “failed to report a purpose for campaign expenditures.” Examples Lara gave include $6,385.50 that Espinoza spent on June 9 for “NM Demographic Research” under “Reported Name” — but her report left “Reported Purpose” blank.
- “used campaign funds for a personal business.” Lara listed one case where $89.19 was spent on June 21 with “AT&T Services, Inc.” under “Reported Name” and “Business” under “Reported Purpose.” Lara contended that, contrary to campaign finance laws, this is not “a political purpose” to spend campaign funds on.
- “failed to properly identify donor occupations.” Lara cited 60 cases wherein Espinoza reported the dates, donors, amounts donated (all $250 or more, some as high as $2,500), but listed each donor’s occupation as only “Business (man, woman, person, persons).” “While clearly a violation of the statute, this is also a violation of the public’s confidence as the public has a right to be informed of what industries and individuals may be attempting to purchase influence in the elections process,” Lara wrote.
- “Failure to report one donor per donation.” Lara cited more than 150 cases wherein donors were listed as couples — married, siblings, etc. By this method, Lara argued, Espinoza could potentially “solicit and accept contributions that may exceed campaign finance contributions as prescribed by” state law.
- “Failure to report an in-kind contribution.” Lara cited Cook’s complaint to the Secretary of State’s Office, saying, “no corresponding expenditure for legal services or an in-kind contribution for legal services corresponding to this work on behalf of the campaign was filed, which is in violation of the Campaign Practices Act.”
Espinoza responded that she had not violated the law and stated that her full, itemized campaign finance report is available online — which it is here.
In her response letter, Espinoza said it is not a violation of the law to list contributors’ occupations as “business(man, woman, person).” Espinoza also said candidates had not been specifically told not to list contributors as couples.
The Albuquerque Journal theorized that Lara, in his initial complaint, was looking at incomplete finance Reports. That could be the result of a non-user-friendly SOS website, which the office currently doesn’t have funding to revamp, Winter said.
On Aug. 19, Winter issued a judgment on Lara’s complaint, saying Espinoza had not violated the CRA.
“Although we do not find any violations of the act, the Espinoza campaign is cautioned to ensure that all campaign reports submitted in the future accurately reflect the name and purpose of all expenditures and in-kind contributions,” Winter said in the letter. “Failure to do so will result in a false or incomplete report and expose the campaign to the penalties imposed by law.”
In a race that’s largely been characterized by attacks, there’s lots of other ground to cover that hasn’t resulted in formal complaints against either candidate.
Oliver and the Democratic Party have criticized Espinoza for missing a House vote this past legislative session on whether to create a state ethics commission, which would set standards for ethical conduct in government and police violations. Oliver has said such a commission is crucial to restoring voter confidence in the SOS office after Duran’s crimes were revealed.
“(Espinoza) was present for the vote right before it and present for the vote right after it and was not present for the ethics vote,” Oliver said.
Espinoza told NMPolitics.net that she was meeting with a constituent at the time.
“As so often happens, during the floor debate, which was extensive, I was called away from my desk — you have to realize that constituents often drive long distances to meet with legislators, and I certainly respect that and try to accommodate everyone, especially considering the distance from Chaves and Lincoln Counties, and constituents’ time and expense,” she said. “Unfortunately, the question was called and the vote was taken while I was away from my desk, with the bill passing by a vote of 50 to 10.”
Espinoza, meanwhile, has raised three issues during Oliver’s tenure as Bernalillo County clerk.
“In 2012, it was widely reported in local media that 125 ballots were ‘found’ (by Bernalillo County) almost a month after the general election, and nearly three weeks after Ms. Toulouse had officially certified the results to (Dianna Duran),” Espinoza said. “(Oliver) is the only county clerk to have done this in the known history of the SOS.”
Alan Packman, Oliver’s campaign manager, said this instance “has been completely vetted over and over again by the press.” It’s true that the media has scrutinized it.
“After the 2012 general election, we had completed the canvas of results and we were preparing for a recount,” Oliver was quoted by The Roswell Daily Record as saying. “We were going through the normal process of preparing for a recount when my staff did identify approximately (125) ballots that had been unopened and uncounted by the absentee board.”
Oliver said her office immediately notified the Secretary of State’s Office to add the missing votes into the finally tally before the state certified its election results.
“This (2016) is now the fifth general election cycle that I’ve been running elections in the largest county (Bernalillo) in the state,” The Daily Record quoted Oliver as saying. “It’s not really possible to run an election perfectly. It’s not really possible to avoid problems and issues. What it is possible to do is, when these types of issues pop up, to be able to take immediate, decisive action and to correct any mistakes that have been made, and that’s what I have done consistently over the course of my nine and a half years as county clerk.”
Oliver also missed the 2012 primary and general election deadlines for mailing absentee ballots to servicemen and women, Espinoza said, alleging that Oliver “is the only county clerk to have missed this deadline.”
Both Oliver and Packman said this statement is false.
“I have literally never, ever once missed a deadline to mail out military ballots,” Oliver was quoted by The Roswell Daily Record as saying. “That is a complete falsehood. And (Espinoza) has absolutely no basis in which to make that allegation. That is completely, unequivocally false.”
Espinoza provided no evidence to back up her allegation.
Espinoza also charges that Oliver’s “enthusiasm for so-called voting convenience centers” – fewer polling places on an election day but the ability for people to vote at any location instead of being tied to one – is partially based on partisan considerations.
“The reduction of 230 polling places to 69 has coincided with long lines and greatly reduced voter participation,” Espinoza said.
But Packman said Oliver’s expansion of voting convenience centers and advocacy for early voting “have been hailed by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s best practices.”
Oliver has also criticized Espinoza for telling The Santa Fe New Mexican on June 29, 2016, that her record in the legislature is “not relevant to the job that I seek.”
“I personally think that’s an unethical statement,” Oliver said. “As candidates for political office, we have records, and the public deserves to know about them.”
Oliver’s campaign also criticized Espinoza for not introducing any legislation related to elections in her years in the House until until after she announced her candidacy for SOS earlier this year.
Espinoza said in past elections she has been an advocate for legislation to require identification to vote.
“It is costly and inefficient for legislators to create duplicate bills when others are already known to be sponsoring the bill,” she said. “In 2016, because of ongoing reports of claims of voter fraud in New Mexico and elsewhere, I urged Rep. Brown to revive her bill, which I co-sponsored with her.”
Espinoza said she sponsored a bill this past legislative session dealing with the proper use of campaign funds because that issue “had come to a head” in October 2015 with revelations about Duran’s crimes and problems with some lawmakers’ campaign finance reports.
“Matters of that particular nature had not come up before, and certainly no one had attempted to address them through legislation — apparently because the issues were new to the discussion, and no one wanted to touch them,” she said. “So I decided to act.”
This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.