The country’s youngest statewide elected official, State Auditor Hector Balderas, has his sights set on New Mexico’s youngest public regulation commissioner, Jerome Block Jr.
Days before the Nov. 4 general election, Balderas sent a letter to Secretary of State Mary Herrera, first applauding the state’s top elections official for penalizing Block to the tune of $21,700 for violating several campaign finance laws, then requesting all documentation regarding Block’s case.
Finally, in the Oct. 30 correspondence, Balderas reminds Herrera that the law requires her to immediately report any criminal violation involving state money to his office.
“Statements made in the media got our attention and obviously concerns around allegations of misusing public tax dollars also triggered our interest and also the information the Secretary of State provided us,” Balderas tells SFR. “And anytime an oversight agency, like the attorney general, gets involved, I think it’s also important for us to make sure that we’re also evaluating the situation on behalf of the constitutional authority vested in this office.”
Herrera’s office subsequently complied on Nov. 6, two days after Block won the general election for the District 3 seat on the powerful board that controls corporations and regulates everything from taxi cab registration to utility rates.
Block came under fire during his campaign, beginning with SFR’s revelation that he had misrepresented his criminal background on newspaper questionnaires. The SOS became involved when reports emerged that Block had misused thousands of dollars in campaign money provided to him by the state.
In particular, Block admits he lied about $2,500 in public money paid to San Miguel County Clerk Paul Maez’ country band for a performance that never occurred. Knowingly filing a false campaign report is a fourth degree felony under the Voter Action Act, which applies only to PRC and judicial candidates. It remains to be seen if the attorney general will pursue the case.
The SOS also found Block misspent money by helping US Sen. Hillary Clinton pay off her presidential campaign debt. All told, Block paid $11,000 in personal fines and returned $10,700 in campaign money.
In the week leading up to the election, the SOS’ office announced an investigation into four other questionable payments first uncovered by SFR, including a Web site built by Block’s father’s employer, a mailer sent out by an Attorney General’s Office employee and payments made to two county-level Democratic organizations.
Previously, the SOS told reporters the office only investigates campaign finance reports if a complaint is filed. This means that hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money are entrusted to politicians with little monitoring. In Block’s case, he was given more than $101,000 to spend on his primary and general election campaigns.
The Secretary of State’s Office has since closed the second investigation without charging Block—or providing much of an explanation. This decision, according to public-campaign finance advocates, illustrates the need for more oversight.
“The fact that the auditor is looking into [Block] just underscores that there is continued confusion over who is going to oversee the system,” Matt Brix, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy, tells SFR. “That’s why independent oversight of some sort, perhaps through the creation of an elections commission, is something we need to revisit.”
Brix says the center plans to push for campaign ethics reform during the next legislative session. Deputy Secretary of State Don Francisco Trujillo III tells SFR he agrees the law needs refinement—adding that there may have been ethical problems with Block’s reports, but the law is too vague to make a clear ruling.
In the meantime, Trujillo welcomes Balderas’ involvement.
“The more oversight and input we can have [the better]. We have no problem with it,” he says.
Balderas says right now his office is just evaluating the materials it received. “Upon further evaluation, I’m sure we’ll have a more concrete position on how we’re going to proceed,” he says.
The state auditor has the ability to seek subpoenas in District Court for documents such as bank transfers. This tool is essential if Balderas hopes to solve outstanding discrepancies in Block’s case.
Depending on what Balderas turns up, the audit’s results could provide ammunition for the state Legislature if it attempts to draw up articles of impeachment against Block, an idea currently being floated by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Bernalillo.
Balderas’ findings also could provide the road map to loophole-closing reform or the clinching argument for dissembling the entire public campaign finance system.
SFR’s full ongoing detail of “Blockgate"