NM SOS Could Check Candidates’ Bank Accounts

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IMG_4602 (2)The Senate Rules Committee on Monday advanced a bill that would give the Secretary of State’s office the ability to access political candidates’ bank accounts in order to verify the accuracy of their campaign finance reports.

The proposal (SB 261) would require the secretary of state’s office to notify candidates 10 days in advance of accessing the bank records.

Sen. Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, told the committee he was concerned about allowing access to the Secretary of State’s office because he feared the ability could be used in a political way.

“My problem is giving political appointees free rein…to go into anyone’s bank account anytime,” Ivey-Soto said.

Ivey-Soto alluded to former state Sen. Rod Adair, a Republican who resigned a position in the secretary of state’s office to manage former Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s re-election campaign in 2014, and who managed the campaign of Ivey-Soto’s most recent opponent. Ivey-Soto said he didn’t want a hypothetical opponent’s campaign manager to have access to his bank accounts.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, echoed the worry about political motivations.

But the bill could have a powerful deterrent effect, said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque. If candidates knew someone was looking at their bank accounts, they probably wouldn’t commit fraud, he said, referring, in part, to Duran, who had falsified her own reports to conceal the fact she was using campaign funds for gambling at local casinos.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, expressed surprise that candidates aren’t required to offer any proof of the accuracy of the information in their campaign finance reports. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino said he didn’t know the reports weren’t already checked against bank accounts.

The New Mexico Secretary of State doesn’t have subpoena power, said Kari Fresquez, the interim elections officer at the secretary of state’s office who helped Cotter present the bill. Although her office audits 10 percent of the campaign finance reports, they have never asked candidates for bank records to verify the information in them.

“Without this, they have one hand tied behind their back,” said the sponsor, Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces.

Most inquiries into the veracity of the reports come from members of the public asking questions about reports they’ve seen online, Fresquez said.

The lack of thorough auditing is a significant loophole in government accountability, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity that found significant flaws in the state’s monitoring and enforcement of campaign finance laws.

“I see this as a flashlight, not necessarily as a spotlight, into the [campaign] accounts,” Moores said.

The proposal was modeled on a system used by the City of Albuquerque, said the sponsor, Cotter said.

A CABQ staff auditor uses the ability to access campaign bank accounts to audit 100 percent of the candidates reports, Fresquez told the Committee.

Representatives from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause spoke in favor of the bill. No one in the audience spoke against it.

Cotter recently talked about the bill with NMID’s partner in the People, Power and Democracy partner, New Mexico in Focus:

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