Ethics complaint alleges group failed to disclose donors, and suggests connection to prominent lobbyist

Over the course of May and early June this year, a new group called the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico” (CCNM) spent over $130,000 on a media campaign supporting a group of incumbent state senators, most of whom would go on to lose as part of a progressive wave in June’s Democratic primary. The media campaign included several negative mailers and automated phone-calls against candidates opposing the incumbents while the public was left in the dark about who organized the group and who funded the media campaign. 

Now, an ethics complaint filed this week with the Secretary of State’s office alleges that CCNM broke New Mexico’s election code by not disclosing its donors. 

Neri Holguin, campaign manager for two of the candidates who won during the June primary, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, writes that the group may have violated the New Mexico Elections Code by not reporting who paid for the negative advertising and phone calls against those candidates as well as others. 

“It was a deliberate attempt to make it as difficult as possible for voters to know who’s behind these hits on our candidates,” said Holguin in an interview. “They knew the rules enough to file as an independent expenditure (IE) and to list their expenditures, and so why not list contributors?”

“Voters need to know that, and we have no way of knowing that right now,” said Holguin. At the core of Holquin’s complaint is a new state law that triggers certain groups to disclose publicly and quickly who the donors are that paid for their electioneering activities if the costs are larger than a state-prescribed threshold. 

Holguin said she believes CCNM was created by a group of people, including prominent New Mexico lobbyist Vanessa Alarid–whom she mentioned by name in the complaint–that have used similar tactics in recent years to influence elections at the local and state level without disclosing publicly who is funding the activities in a timely fashion.Chevonne Alarid, the president of the nonprofit group, however, said disclosure isn’t necessary  until it files its annual report to the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, she and Vanessa Alarid both denied Vanessa’s involvement.

Despite no corporate money pledges, Democratic federal candidates keep taking it

While every Democrat running for federal office in New Mexico this year pledged to not accept money from corporate political action committees, they still benefit from corporate giving. 

Funneled to their campaigns from intermediary PACs that gather corporate money and then redirect it to candidates for office, the donations shine a light on the complications Democrats face when attempting to distance themselves from corporate special interests while still raising enough money to run winning campaigns. Since the landmark Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010– which opened political campaigns to unrestricted outside spending in elections by corporations, nonprofits, unions, and other organizations—a movement to enact reforms that would limit corporate influence in elections has grown, and found a home within the Democratic Party. One group, called End Citizens United, encourages candidates to pledge not to accept donations from corporate PACs. Federal rules already prohibit candidates from taking donations from corporations directly.

Spending in New Mexico primary highlights dark money at work

As the Democratic primary in New Mexico’s third congressional district heated up in May, two mysterious groups– Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical– began spending a combined $300,000 to support Teresa Leger Fernandez, now the Democratic nominee. The groups ran positive, even glowing advertisements about Leger Fernandez, but didn’t disclose who paid for the ads. Few details could be found about them online. This “dark money” spending drew significant criticism from other candidates, who condemned Leger Fernandez for not calling for removal of the ads. 

But a review by New Mexico In Depth of Federal Election Commission filings suggests the real goal was to deny another candidate in the race—Valerie Plame— the win by boosting the prospects of the Leger Fernandez campaign. 

It’s not uncommon for groups to spend money to support one candidate in order to prevent another candidate from winning. But when groups don’t disclose their donors, voters are left in the dark about the motives behind such efforts. 

“Our voting public is incredibly busy, and doesn’t have time to do research on every single one of the candidates,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

New Mexico native Shaun Griswold joins New Mexico In Depth team

New Mexico In Depth welcomes reporter Shaun Griswold to our team beginning next week. Shaun is Pueblo from Laguna, Jemez and Zuni, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. 

He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience to our team. He’s covered Rocky Mountain fire seasons, local police reform, and, as he is sure to note, the Denver Broncos and Kendrick Lamar. 

Shaun Griswold

We’re thrilled by the opportunity to work with Shaun, thanks to Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities through its reporting corps. Report for America is an initiative of the nonprofit news organization, The GroundTruth Project. He joins 225 reporters placed by the program in 162 newsrooms around the country, from a pool of more than 1,800 applicants. 

For New Mexico In Depth, Shaun will focus on issues important to urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque, as well as tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education, child welfare, and more. 

“I’m excited to join the ranks of Indigenous journalists at Indian Country Today, Navajo Times, High Country News and every publication focused on expanding news for thriving Indigenous communities that demand coverage,” he says about this opportunity. 

Native Americans compose 11% of the New Mexico state population, and Albuquerque is home to one of the largest communities of urban Indian  people in the country.

Lobbying influence game largely in the dark

A reporter sits at her desk looking at a spreadsheet. The rows and columns show the spending lobbyists reported to the Secretary of State’s Office for the first five months of 2019, which includes the 60-day legislative session.  She wants to tell a story about what that spending bought. But there’s only so much to glean, because so much isn’t reported. That was me the other day.

NM doles out billion dollars in capital outlay, funding decisions remain secret

As New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers are poised to allocate almost a billion dollars to infrastructure projects around the state. The Senate Finance committee approved $933 million yesterday for capital projects statewide. For comparison, just a year ago capital outlay money totaled $364.5 million. The state is so flush with cash, that each chamber is moving an additional “junior” appropriation bill of about $30 million, HB 548 and SB 536, for $60 million total that individual members will parcel out. The bill, SB 280, holds $385 million going to statewide projects designated by state agencies.

With days to go, ethics commission legislation stalls

A few weeks ago, Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, mentioned the option of passing a memorial creating a task force to study an independent ethics commission through 2019. Just in case, he said. Nibert wanted to see legislation that dictates what powers such a commission would have and how it would operate. But it was clear, even weeks ago, that agreement on a subject the Legislature has debated for 13 years might be difficult despite 75 percent of New Mexicans voting to enshrine the idea in the state constitution this November. But Nibert waited before asking a legislative agency to draft the memorial.