State Ethics Commission sues Apodaca’s dark money operation

The State Ethics Commission on Friday sued a dark money group and its president, Jeff Apodaca, to force disclosure of the sources behind the money paying for political advertising in support of legislative candidates running in the June 4 primary election. 

The New Mexico Project registered as a domestic nonprofit corporation in New Mexico last fall, and has since spent thousands of dollars on political advertising. But the group hasn’t identified its donors. In its 49-page complaint to the state’s Second Judicial District in Bernalillo County, the commission wrote that it is bringing the action to “stop Defendants’ ongoing efforts to frustrate the public’s right to know,” citing 2019 reforms to the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that attempt to eliminate “dark money.” 

Those changes specifically targeted “independent expenditures” for disclosure – money that groups spend on political advertising without input from candidates. 

To make its case, the commission draws heavily upon Apodaca’s own words made through numerous media outlets, including the KKOB radio shows of Bob Clark and T.J. Trout, and a column by Apodaca published in The Santa Fe New Mexican. 

It noted that Apodaca used the term “independent expenditure” to describe the group’s spending, on Clark’s May 1 radio show: ​​“We’re an educational independent expenditure. So we’re going in and educating the voters on what we need to do to get out and vote and vote for the right candidates.” 

Citing Apodaca’s statements on that same show that his group can raise as much as it wants without having to disclose donors, the commission disagreed: “TNMP is mistaken; the Campaign Reporting Act requires TNMP to give New Mexicans basic information about the sources of the money TNMP is using to influence their votes.”

The complaint points to $10,000 paid to Cumulus Media for radio ads, noting that the memo line on the image of the check filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the radio stations states “Radio Ad – Primary.” The complaint also describes 33 Facebook ads placed by the group to support candidates. 

The commission asks that the court order the group to register as a political committee, which under state law must disclose donors, or alternatively, that either the group or Apodaca be ordered to simply report the sources of the money spent on the political advertising.  

New Mexico In Depth attempted through phone and email to reach Apodaca two weeks ago to ask why he had not disclosed the New Mexico Project’s donors. On Friday afternoon, it emailed and used social media to ask if he would disclose those donors now that the State Ethics Commission has sued him and the group.  As of Friday afternoon, he had not responded to New Mexico In Depth. 

Democratic lawmaker defends campaign spending

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.

Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

It’s a safe bet Democrats will barrel into 2025 with their supremacy intact at the New Mexico Legislature. Barring an unexpected shock during this year’s elections, Democrats’ stranglehold on power is assured.Going into the 2024 contests, Democrats control nearly two-thirds of all seats in the House and nearly three of every five seats in the Senate.The question going into the June primary election is whether the party’s progressive wing will continue to increase power in the Legislature or will more centrist Democrats hold ground.  This year’s effort by progressives is the latest in a long standing campaign, stretching back to the mid-2000s, to bring more progressives into the Legislature. In 2008, progressives successfully replaced a slate of centrist Democrats with newly minted candidates who are now political veterans, including the launch of current Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s political career, who joined the Senate that year. 

Because of this one-party dominance, the ideological fault lines within the Democratic Party have major policy implications on abortion, the environment, education and workplace issues like minimum wage and paid family and medical leave benefits. 

Progressive political candidates and committees have raised tens of thousands of dollars for bids to oust certain Democratic legislators in June’s primary election. 

New Mexico’s progressive political machine was buoyed dramatically in 2020 when insurgents unseated long-time Democratic incumbents viewed as more centrist or right of center. The first campaign finance reports filed April 8 show progressive insurgents amassing thousands in contributions from individuals.  And the efforts of progressive independent expenditure committees will undoubtedly benefit their campaigns. 

Incumbents hold an advantage in corporate money, with energy, healthcare and hospitality interests giving big.

NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss government transparency, ethics and the Governmental Conduct Act

New Mexico In Depth editors held the third of five online chats about the 2024 legislative session last week. Professor of Practice of Journalism at the University of New Mexico, and occasional contributor to New Mexico In Depth, Gwyneth Doland, joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress to discuss government transparency, legislative modernization efforts, and the Governmental Conduct Act. Doland kicked off the conversation talking about the 14 students she takes to the Roundhouse every Wednesday and their experience thus far. “It’s interesting and cool to see things through their eyes,” she said, while noting that for newcomers, navigating the state capitol during a legislative session can be a lot to take in. 

The three discussed efforts over the past 15 years to make the statehouse more accessible and understandable, including webcasting, budget transparency efforts, and showing what is stricken or added through amendments lawmakers adopt to change legislation, and making bills easier to track. One step backwards Jennings mentioned is that certain areas of the capitol have been closed to the public, making it more difficult to reach lawmakers for a conversation.

Oil and gas gave big in 2023. The industry flexed its muscles this week.

Large oil and gas companies gave nearly $800,000 in the past 12 months to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, partisan legislative political action committees and individual state lawmakers, according to a partial review of campaign finance reports filed by lobbyists. That amount almost certainly will grow in coming months due to a quirk in New Mexico’s disclosure laws. Elected officials don’t have to report contributions they received in the last quarter of last year until this spring. 

The amount of money the industry showers on elected officials offers a glimpse into the influence it has at the state capitol during legislative sessions. 

The industry’s ability to shape legislation was on full display Thursday when a House committee substantively stripped a bill of new regulations that would have required oil and gas infrastructure to be set back more than a third of a mile from schools, health facilities, multifamily housing, occupied homes, and at least 300 feet from waterways.The political giving reflects the industry’s outsized dominance in a state that ranks second in oil production nationally and where more than 40% of funding for New Mexico’s state budget can be tied directly to the industry.The money spread around to New Mexico’s elected officials has been well-documented, as has its power. A March 2020 report by Common Cause New Mexico and New Mexico Ethics Watch detailed the largess over the years 2017-2019, with almost $12 million funneled into political campaign coffers, and more than a million more was given by October of that year.New Mexico In Depth also has documented the political spending and the push and pull over regulation through the years. In 2019, the first year Lujan Grisham took over as governor from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, there was a push by environmentalists to implement greater regulations for the oil and gas industry, but in the end, the oil and gas industry had little to fear. 

The industry far exceeds other industries in its political giving, and has for many years.

Public blind to money flowing to lawmakers as session kicks off

As the New Mexico legislative session kicked off this week, the public was blind in one very important respect. 

Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth

In the next four weeks, lawmakers will create a state budget worth at least $10 billion dollars, pass another quite large capital outlay budget, and pass influential tax and policy bills. But who gave money to those lawmakers in the last quarter of the year – in the form of campaign contributions – will largely be a mystery. That’s because lawmakers aren’t required to file a public report in January about campaign contributions they received in the run-up to the legislative session, if they didn’t run for office the year before. 

Since no lawmakers ran for office in 2023, we do not have a comprehensive data set showing the money that flowed into campaign accounts in the final months of 2023. Their last reports reflect contributions through Oct. 7, 2023, and we won’t have an update until April, when their next reports are due.I’ve been looking at campaign filings for many years. I promise you that among year-end contributors will be corporations and often, their owners and employees. There will be executives and public relations specialists for trade associations, labor unions, and public policy organizations. 

Some of those contributors will be registered as official lobbyists for their organizations, and in those cases we can see what they gave because lobbyists must file a January report. But while the reports of 100 or so lobbyists, or of their employers, are highly consequential, they are just a slice of the money flowing into the campaign accounts of lawmakers. A fuller picture would allow the public to comb through reports by address, employers, and occupation, and better understand how much money lawmakers are getting from a particular industry, special interest group, or simply from a handful of big donors. Last year, lawmakers were poised to pass a bill with several transparency measures, including one that would have shifted the reporting schedule to capture donations at the end of the year in a January report, showing how much money was given to lawmakers in the run-up to the legislative session.

Lawmakers water down alcohol proposals amid public health crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – JUNE 26, 2022: The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM on June 26, 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

The alcohol industry notched a victory Saturday as the Legislature approved an alcohol tax hike of less than a penny-a-drink on beer and hardly more than that for liquor and wine, a fraction of the 18- to 20-cents public health advocates pushed for in this year’s session. 

Lawmakers also rejected a $5 million request from the Department of Health for a new Office of Alcohol Prevention, despite the state’s historic budget surplus. A DOH spokesperson said its epidemiology division would create a smaller version of the office anyway, using an additional $2 million lawmakers added to the agency’s budget. 

Public health experts say the tax increase is so small that it’s unlikely to have any effect on excess drinking, let alone tackle New Mexico’s worst–in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths. The chair of the House tax committee, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, who had rejected a compromise 5¢-per-drink proposal passed by his counterparts in the Senate, acknowledged the final increase was minor on the floor of the House of Representatives on Saturday morning. “If we want to call it minimal, we can call it minimal,” he said.

House kills effort to increase campaign sunshine and prevent corruption

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected a package of reforms to the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that would have closed a loophole allowing independent groups to evade reporting their donors. 

Senate Bill 42, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, would have fixed language in the law that a nonprofit organization exploited in 2020 to get around disclosing who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for political advertising in support of a ballot referendum on converting the Public Regulation Commission from an elected to an appointed body. 

Eleven Democrats joined all Republicans to kill the bill. 

Eleven House Democrats joined all Republicans to defeat Senate Bill 42 on March 15, 2023. Image from the House of Representatives vote tally board. “I’m very disappointed that members of my own party joined all of the Republicans to prevent the public from knowing who is paying for, among other things, political attack ads,” McQueen said after the vote. 

Other reforms in the package included changes to ensure candidates don’t charge interest on personal loans they make to their own campaign accounts, thereby profiting from campaign contributions used to pay off such loans. 

It would have changed reporting dates to provide more timely information about contributors to their campaigns. Currently, the public is in the dark for months about who gives money to campaigns on election day, or in the months preceding the legislative session in non-election years. 

The bill also would have barred  lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists or political committees during the legislative session. 

During the floor debate on the bill, McQueen fielded a wide range of questions, many of them about existing provisions under the Campaign Reporting Act that wouldn’t have been changed under Senate Bill 42. Numerous questions were fielded about provisions related to personal loans made by candidates to their own campaign accounts.