We are digesting the news this week that investigators at the Attorney General’s office suspect Democratic House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque funneled almost a million dollars of public money out of Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer, to benefit herself.
To learn that a trusted champion of under-served communities and one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state may have orchestrated a long-running scheme to grab a slice of public money for herself, is *really* *sad* *news*. We are holding out hope that it’s not true, not one more tragic episode in the annals of corrupt New Mexico leaders. The investigation is laid out in a 32-page search warrant, centered on discoveries of money from a company with a sole source contract with the school district going to organizations or businesses she appears to have substantial control over.
Buried among the details in the damning search warrant is $50,000 in state capital outlay money that in 2007 Williams Stapleton directed to the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs to purchase and equip vans for the African American Performing Arts Center at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. In a 2008 email between Williams Stapleton and Expo New Mexico, she explained the vans were for programs at the center. Their upkeep would be the responsibility of the Charlie Morrisey Education Center and a company called Robotics Learning Management Systems.
The search warrant makes the case that the Charlie Morrisey Education Center is an organization that Stapleton had substantial influence over, and that she directed capital outlay money to it.
Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest.
In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important. For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on.
Following the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, New Mexico will hold a special election on June 1st to fill her seat representing the Albuquerque-centered first congressional district. But the public doesn’t get a say in who the nominees will be.
Rather than a primary election, state law allows the political parties themselves to select their own candidates. These choices are being made even while there’s been a gap in public disclosure of who’s contributed money to the various candidates.
Yesterday, the Republican state central committee, with less than 140 members, convened over Zoom to choose State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, while about 25 members of the Libertarian Party chose Chris Manning.
The Democratic state central committee will select their candidate on Tuesday, a highly anticipated choice given the Democratic tilt in the district for more than a decade. Just over 200 people–– a smattering of local party members, elected officials and other party insiders–– will be eligible to vote for one of eight different candidates seeking the nomination. On March 23rd, the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County held a virtual candidate forum exclusively for their members.
Despite some early optimism from advocates, state lawmakers took a pass this year on requiring greater transparency around the work of lobbyists. In fact, lawmakers didn’t even give the topic a full hearing during the recent legislative session. That’s despite a significant lack of disclosure about how powerful lobbyists work to influence legislation in New Mexico. In a 2015 report, the Center for Public Integrity graded the state an “F” for lobbying disclosure, the 43rd worst in the country. It’s not improved since then. Drive a few hours north, and the sort of transparency proposed for New Mexico is just business as usual.
The Legislature concluded today, which also happens to be the final day of Sunshine Week, so it’s only fitting that we review a couple of transparency measures taken up by the Legislature.
In short: it’s a mixed bag. One prominent measure five years in the making passed, and if the governor signs the bill, lawmakers will no longer be able to allocate public works dollars in secret. But another measure that sought to fix a loophole in campaign finance disclosure laws was dead in the water.
Lawmakers shine light on themselves
Once a contentious measure among lawmakers, a bill that requires a list of how lawmakers allocate public infrastructure dollars be published on the legislative website sailed through the 2021 session. It’s momentous, considering the long history of secrecy surrounding how lawmakers decide what projects to fund. The public list will only pertain to projects this year and in the future.
The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would close a “loophole” in the state’s transparency laws, and would require legislators running for federal office to disclose their contributions every 10 days during the legislative session. The loophole allows nonprofit organizations to avoid disclosing donors behind political spending if those giving the money requested in writing that their donations not be spent for political purposes, even if the group decides to use the money for politics anyway. The amended SB 387 ultimately passed the Senate on a 35-3 vote after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday, where State Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris spoke in favor of the bill. The bill now heads to the House for consideration. “I think it closes the gap,” said Farris, noting that Wirth’s bill was similar to recommendations the commission made in its 2020 annual report.
Legislators are barred from soliciting campaign contributions while the Roundhouse is in session– unless they happen to be running for Congress.
During the state’s prohibited fundraising period, lasting from January 1st to the end of the session, lawmakers may not solicit any campaign contributions and lobbyists may not donate to any state campaigns. But federal campaigns aren’t subject to state law. This means four Democratic state lawmakers running for an open congressional seat may fundraise at the same time they’re conducting state business during the 2021 legislative session. New Mexicans won’t officially know who contributed to them until after the session.
“The original intent of having a prohibited period for state lawmakers was so that the public wouldn’t have the perception that lobbyists were literally giving our elected officials money for their state campaigns while they’re in the middle of a legislative session,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee unanimously endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, that would require state elected officials running for federal office to disclose their donors every ten days during the prohibited period.
Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, is seeking to tighten a so-called “loophole” in New Mexico’s campaign finance laws that allowed a dark money group to hide its donors during the 2020 election. “I do think we need to continue our work to be sure that voters know who’s donating to independent expenditure committees,” Wirth said during a hearing today before the Senate Rules Committee. “This bill is a baby step.”
In 2020, the nonprofit Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers (CPNMC) argued it didn’t have to disclose who funded $264,000 spent on mailers sent to voters, taking advantage of an exception in the campaign reporting act that allows a group to keep donors secret when they request in writing that their contributions not be used for political spending.
Underlined language that SB 387 would add to the Campaign Reporting Act. Wirth’s Senate Bill 387 would require outside spenders to separate those kinds of contributions from money given for political spending, keeping them in a segregated bank account in order to be legally shielded from disclosure, leaving less room for groups to use that exemption to their advantage. “It’s an attempt to just figure out where the dollars are coming from,” Wirth said about the fix to outside spending transparency laws that Wirth championed for more than a decade and that became law in 2019
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver spoke briefly in support of the bill, praising Sen. Wirth’s prior work on bringing more transparency to political spending.
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.
If there’s one thing that’s dominated my reporting over the eight months I’ve spent with New Mexico in Depth, it’s dark money; it was the subject of my first story, and almost half the stories I’ve reported since then. Bryan Metzger
For the uninitiated, “dark money” typically refers to outside spending by nonprofit entities that are not obligated to disclose their donors, at least under federal law. In 2019, New Mexico passed a law to force these kinds of organizations to disclose their donors, but in 2020, two groups challenged the law rather than comply with it, underscoring the difficulty in bringing to light what special interests are behind political spending.
This morning, we published a story that took a deep dive on one of these groups– the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers”– which spent $264,000 advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to change the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) from a five-member elected body to a three-member appointed body, beginning in 2023. It was the first time I’d really attempted to get to the source of a dark money group’s funds, rather than simply report on a lack of disclosure. What we found were some strange bedfellows.