Democratic lawmaker defends campaign spending

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Democrat State Rep. Ambrose Castellano in interviews justified expensing a trip to Hawaii, new vehicle tires and restaurant tabs of more than $1,000 to his campaign as not only allowable but necessary to perform his legislative and political duties.  

Castellano’s defense comes in response to the campaign of his primary opponent, Anita Gonzales, promoting a recent complaint to the State Ethics Commission as evidence that Castellano used campaign funds for personal expenses.

But Castellano said in an interview he did not intend to break campaign spending rules and that he welcomes a fair review by the Ethics Commission. He called the complaint an attempt to discredit him as a Hispanic leader in the midst of the primary election campaign he is currently running. 

“I do very well for myself and I wouldn’t put myself in jeopardy in any situation to do something” that is not allowable, Castellano, who owns his own Santa Fe based construction business, said. 

Castellano is currently trying to fend off a challenge from Gonzales for the District 70 House seat in San Miguel and Torrance Counties in the June primary election. 

In the ethics complaint, Damon Ely, a former Democratic state representative and Albuquerque attorney, alleged Castellano spent thousands of his campaign funds on personal expenses going back to 2020. 

“Representative Castellano reports having reimbursed himself for $6,233.75 in gas around the state and in Texas. He spent a total of $8,101.79 for hotels in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Chama, and Honolulu. He shows having charged at least $14,773.52 in meals eating out over 135 times and 84 of them in Santa Fe, a district he does not represent,” Ely wrote in the complaint dated April 15, 2024.

Ely donated $1,000 to Gonzales’ campaign in March, and he’s listed as a contact on a press release Gonzales sent to New Mexico In Depth and other media outlets about the complaint. But Ely denied filing the complaint to harm Castellano’s re-election campaign. 

“I thought it was important to have an ethics complaint,” Ely said. “It was not political; that’s not how I operate.” Ely otherwise wouldn’t comment on the complaint in an interview with New Mexico In Depth. 

A lion’s share of the funds Castellano has raised since 2020 come from corporations, trade associations and lobbyists, including some of the largest companies in the country, according to campaign records.

New Mexico In Depth independently verified some of the expenditures that Ely takes issue with, paid for with those campaign contributions, and asked Castellano about them. 

Large restaurant tabs?

Castellano spent $1,000 for a meal at Santa Fe’s Bull Ring restaurant on July 20, 2022. 

“To me it was an allowable [expense] because there were some constituents and there were lobbyists,” he told New Mexico In Depth, noting that representatives from BNSF Railway were there, and that their track runs through his community. 

Castellano said charges of more than $2,000 he spent on meals at Jinja Bar and Bistro in Santa Fe on Jan. 29 during the 2024 30-day legislative session weren’t for personal meals. 

“I bought that for staff at the Legislature,” Castellano said.

Whether legislators may buy meals for legislative staffers using their campaign funds depends on specific circumstances, said Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State.   

Officeholders “are allowed to use their campaign funds for certain things related to legislative duties that are not expressly prohibited in the statute, such as legislative lodging, so occasionally feeding staff might be an acceptable use,” Curtas said. 

New tires? 

In August 2022, Castellano charged his campaign account $1,714.90 for a new set of vehicle tires. That year, he faced no opponent in the general election after he prevailed in the June primaries.

Asked if it would be legal for a candidate to directly expense vehicle repairs to a campaign account, Curtas pointed to an administrative rule enacted in 2017 whose purpose was to “provide clear guidance” around the Campaign Reporting Act. 

“Wear and tear on a vehicle is a permissible expense of the campaign and candidates shall claim mileage rather than actual repairs for travel solely related to the campaign,” the rule says.

However, other guidance documents might confuse the issue for public officials. 

An ethics guide for lawmakers currently available on the legislative website states that “…it is not a violation of the Campaign Reporting Act to spend campaign funds to repair and maintain vehicles that are used for campaigning and legislative business.”

And the Campaign Reporting Act simply states that expenditures may be made for “travel expenditures to serve constituents.”

“Each specific scenario would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if the expense is ‘reasonably related to the campaign,’” Curtas said in an email.

A vacation in Hawaii?

The ethics complaint highlights hotel charges in Honolulu in December 2022. The Anita Gonzales campaign said in a media release that Castellano and his family were on a holiday trip to Hawaii paid for by campaign donors. 

Castellano said he was attending the annual meeting of the Council of State Governments, a Kentucky-based nonprofit, nearly 100 years old, that brings state officials together to discuss policy. In 2022, state officials from across the nation gathered in Honolulu for training sessions on numerous issues such as teacher shortages, disinformation, mental health and more. The sessions, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, an oceanside resort on the island’s Waikiki Beach,were held from Wednesday, Dec. 7 to Saturday Dec. 10 of 2022.

Castellano’s January 2023 campaign filing lists four charges associated with the trip. That includes $26.51 for a Dec. 6 meal at Comida Buena at the Sunport; a $2,096.02 charge for lodging at the Hilton made Dec. 6; a $336.84  tab at a Japanese steakhouse on Dec. 6; and another $1,044.18 charge for lodging at the Hilton, this one made Dec. 12. The charges for lodging don’t describe whether or not those charges include airfare or conference registration fees, room service or other meals in the hotel. 

Gonzales’ campaign suggested Castellano stayed longer than the duration of the conference. Castellano in an interview said that is not the case.

“We stayed for the conference when it started, when it ended,” he said, he said about himself, his wife and his daughter. 

Jane Tabet-Kirkpatrick, spokesperson for the State Ethics Commission, pointed to an advisory opinion issued in April in which the commission “found that the Campaign Reporting Act permits legislators to expend campaign funds on activities reasonably aligned with the responsibilities of their office, which could encompass training and travel endeavors.”

Such opinions set precedent for how the commission rules on ethics complaints. The commission wrote that April opinion in response to a petition asking if a lawmaker can use campaign funds to pay for registration and travel to conferences and courses designed to make them a better legislator.

“‘Reasonably related’ requires some degree of meaningful connection between the training and the legislative office held, and the use of campaign funds cannot be used for personal use, which includes the use of campaign funds for personal travel, or travel associated with a training that is so broad or generalized it is not directly connected to the position of the legislative office held,” the opinion concluded.

Like many officeholders, Castellano said, he leans on advice from attorneys in addition to fellow lawmakers to avoid violating the act. 

“The law is very gray,” said the two-term incumbent. “ … There’s no training.” 

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