Nonprofit groups put new independent expenditure law to the test

After a decade-long effort, New Mexico lawmakers passed new campaign reporting requirements in 2019 to force nonprofit groups, which can spend money on political campaigns without registering as political committees, to disclose their spending as well as the names, addresses, and contribution amounts of their donors who fund such “independent expenditures.” 

Outside campaign spending by groups or individuals not affiliated with a particular campaign have long been a target of reformers seeking to rein in the influence of money on politics.   Without disclosure, nonprofits can spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” without the public knowing where the money comes from. In 2020, two nonprofit groups immediately put the new law to the test by refusing to disclose donors despite enforcement efforts by both the Secretary of State and the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. “I’m not at all surprised,” said Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who championed the transparency measure for a decade. “Anytime you’re trying to rein [dark money] in, you know, there’s going to be groups that are going to push the limits.” 

The challenges by the nonprofit groups represent a key test for both the law itself and for the enforcing power of the state’s newly created ethics commission, also established in 2019 after several decades of ongoing debate and setbacks.Approved by voters and given powers by the Legislature, the commission can subpoena records and enforce state statutes that cover campaign spending, lobbying, and government conduct.

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.

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.

Dark Money rearing its head in ABQ elections

With Albuquerque’s city election less than a month away, a number of independent groups have registered with the city as political committees, ramping up to make their views known. As of last Friday when the latest campaign finance reports were filed, such committees have raised a combined total of $824,441. That’s 20 percent of all the money raised so far this election cycle, that will see a new mayor elected, as well as numerous new city councilors. There is a controversial ballot measure on the ballot as well. The money will be used to bombard Albuquerque voters–and all other listeners to the big television and radio stations–with political ads for and against candidates and issues.