No Public Cash for PRC Hopefuls

Candidates broke rules regarding seed money, according to the secretary of state

Two candidates for Public Regulation Commission seats won't be getting public money for their campaigns, due to violations of New Mexico election law, the secretary of state has ruled.

Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who is running for re-election, has no opponent in the June primary for her District 3 seat, which covers Northern New Mexico's central core, including Santa Fe. Yet, she still applied under the Voter Action Act to get cash for one of New Mexico's few offices where public campaign financing is even an option. As an uncontested candidate, Espinoza was eligible for half the amount made available to candidates with opponents—totaling $17,679.

Cynthia B Hall is taking on Karen Montoya, the incumbent for PRC's District 1, which mostly covers Albuquerque. Hall could have received $31,544.

Yet contributions the two candidates accepted during early fundraising for what's called "seed money," adding up to $250, have disqualified them from receiving public funds, according to secretary of state letters obtained by SFR. Now, if they want to spend money for the campaign, they'll need to seek more private contributions.

Reached on the phone, Espinoza, a Democrat, denied any wrongdoing. "We disagree with this decision. It reeks of political partisanship on behalf of the secretary," she says. She appealed the decision, but a hearing officer agreed with the secretary of state, who makes the final call as to whether the candidates get the money.

Hall also appealed but decided to withdraw her appeal. She tells SFR the appeal is "just not worth the effort. I feel like this race is too important. I don't want it to be delayed by political manipulation." She added that she will fund her campaign through private donations.

"The secretary is considering the hearing officer's recommendations and will issue his findings to the candidates as soon as possible," says Kenneth Ortiz, spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Winter.

While candidates who intend to seek public campaign financing can collect $5,000 to get started, New Mexico law prohibits candidates from accepting seed money donated by corporate entities. Records show that Espinoza accepted $100 from Picuris Pueblo in October 2015. She also accepted $50 in December 2015 from JRA Equity, LLC, which lists Robert Anaya as its agent.

Hall received $150 in seed money from a single contributor named Richard Rodriguez, violating the $100 limit.

Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist, tells SFR he wrote  two separate checks about three months apart and didn't realize that broke the rules. "It was my mistake," he says.

Montoya, who was approved for public funds, says she supports the secretary of state's decision to deny money to her primary opponent. "When you're dealing with taxpayer money and public funds, there is a high threshold for what is appropriate, and as public officials, it is incumbent on us to be diligent," she tells SFR.

"It didn't come through my office. This is the first time I'm hearing about this," says Picuris tribal administrator Jeff Atencio. Picuris Gov. Gary Pyne was not available for comment at the time of this article's publication.

"It's so very unintentional. I have a full-time, 24/7 job," Espinoza says. "I trusted my treasurer to deposit the money. We're speaking about $150 total. I think that this is just such an extreme price to pay."

Espinoza is running unopposed to keep her commission seat, which she has held since 2012. She previously served as Santa Fe County clerk for eight years and before that worked as a supervisor in the secretary of state's office.

The Voter Action Act provides campaign funds for a small number of offices in New Mexico. Only candidates for statewide judicial elections and Districts 1 and 3 of the Public Regulatory Commission are eligible to apply.

Officials discovered the violations when they reviewed the candidates' applications for public campaign funds. "Failure to comply with the provisions set in the Voter Action Act prohibit [sic] our office from certifying you to receive a disbursement from the Public Election Fund," both letters state. "As such, we are unable to qualify you for certification for public financing under the Voter Action Act for the 2016 election cycle."

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