Dark money 2

PRC commissioner urges PNM to “come clean” on dark money

New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner (PRC) Joseph Maestas on Wednesday demanded that Public Service Company of New Mexico disclose whether it contributed to a dark money group that supported a November ballot measure seeking to overhaul the agency charged with regulating the utility. “I’m just simply calling on PNM to come clean, you know, disclose whether or not you donated to this dark money PAC [sic],” Maestas said during a PRC hearing, referencing the nonprofit group Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers. PNM may not be under legal obligation to disclose its involvement, Maestas said, but it had a “moral obligation” to do so. “I agree, we’d love to hear,” Stephen Fischmann, the PRC commission chairman, said. “I think there’s a strong possibility that it’s the case that they did donate to it.” 

New Mexico In Depth received no response Wednesday from PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval despite multiple requests for comment, continuing weeks of silence on whether or not the utility contributed to the nonprofit.

Dark money group pushing PRC reform tied to major oil company

Exxon Mobil Corporation contributed to a dark-money group that supported a successful November referendum reforming the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC), according to a campaign finance report filed by one of its lobbyists. One of the largest oil and gas producers in New Mexico, the multinational conglomerate gave at least $10,000 to the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers,” a nonprofit that spent a quarter of a million dollars touting the merits of a constitutional amendment, which eventually passed handily. The contribution can be found in an Oct. 7 report filed by Exxon Mobil lobbyist Deanna Archuleta. The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers refused to disclose its donors when the State Ethics Commission (SEC) demanded it do so despite new campaign disclosure laws requiring groups like it to say where the money they spend on political campaigns comes from.

Lawmaker, advocates pursue greater sunshine from lobbyists

Lobbying at the Roundhouse is a little bit different from other states. Put a crop of unpaid “citizen legislators” and well-paid professional lobbyists in a building together, and a certain culture develops in which lobbyists become key sources of information for lawmakers. “When I have colleagues that come in here from other states, or from the national level, they’re amazed at the degree of access that folks have here, and it’s more of an informal kind of a situation than it is at a lot of other venues,” said Dan Weaks, a professional lobbyist. In contrast to unpaid, understaffed legislators, lobbyists—many of whom have significant monetary resources at their disposal—can play an outsized role in the policymaking process, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who has witnessed employers hire as many as 10 lobbyists for a single issue. 

“They had a lobbyist posted at every elevator.”

Another senator didn’t mince words. The system we have “empowers lobbyists over the people’s elected representatives, and that’s a pretty dysfunctional system, in my view,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

Lawmakers will again push for capital outlay transparency

Legislators will make another push this year to make public how individual lawmakers divvy up capital outlay money. 

New Mexico In Depth discovered back in 2015 that those decisions were exempt from the Inspection of Public Records Act, after submitting a request for a list detailing how lawmakers individually allocated infrastructure money that year. We wrote about what we’d found, and several lawmakers promptly introduced bills in 2016 to make information available to the public about how individual legislators steward capital outlay dollars. Here’s a recap of the issue:

Each year, the state Legislature passes a capital outlay budget that sends millions of dollars out to New Mexico communities to pay for infrastructure projects. To figure out how to spend that money, lawmakers divide the money three ways. The governor controls a third, state agencies control a third, and lawmakers control a third. 

How do lawmakers decide how to spend their portion?

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.

Modest sunshine still leaves campaign cash in shadow

Since New Mexico enacted a new disclosure law last year, more than $800,000 in political spending has been publicly reported by nonprofit groups that in the past would have remained largely hidden. It’s a change that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver calls “a huge victory.” But Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter regulation of money in politics, is more reserved: “What’s on the books in New Mexico is not the most cutting edge, but it’s undoubtedly a big improvement from the last decade.”

The New Mexico experience illustrates that improving the transparency of how campaigns are financed can be done, but making progress often requires incremental steps that take a lot of time. What has happened in New Mexico is an example of what states across the country must grapple with when they seek to slow the influence of money over their own politics, at a time when federal regulation of presidential and congressional elections has shriveled. 

An ocean of money still floats through the state’s elections while remaining out of public view — it’s spent on mailers and advertising that blanket television, radio and social media as elections near — because the new law didn’t strengthen donor disclosure requirements for political action committees.More than $4.8 million in spending on campaigns across the state this year came from PACs whose donations are very difficult if not impossible to trace to their original source, according to an analysis by New Mexico In Depth and The Fulcrum. That’s because their donors often are nonprofit groups or other PACs, so the only way to learn where the money originally came from is to find out the contributors to those other groups. Finding out who gives to nonprofit organizations — so-called “dark money groups” — can be next to impossible, because for the most part they aren’t required to identify their own donors.

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.