4 Investigates: NM's campaign finance system misleads, fails voters; legislators stunned
Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4
January 12, 2017 07:25 PM
New Mexico voters are supposed to know who paid to put their elected leaders in office with honesty and accuracy. But don't count on it, the 4 Investigates team exposed.
The state's legislative leaders now have a six-figure problem to fix because New Mexico's taxpayer-funded campaign finance system does not account for a serious blind spot.
It comes down to dollars and cents -- and sense.
KOB's 4 Investigates team spent roughly three months analyzing hundreds of thousands of lines of campaign finance data requested from the New Mexico Secretary of State's office under public records laws to reach its conclusions.
"It was just all over the place," data analyst and University of New Mexico student Seth Barany said. KOB hired him to assist with the project. "I was just chasing my own tail for hours and hours and hours."
Barany, who's pursuing an education in political science and economics, was tasked in helping KOB analyze 10 legislators -- five Democrats and five Republicans who represent New Mexico's legislative leadership.
The question: Is their financial reporting the truth?
Procedurally, the research process was a basic test of the campaign finance system. Political action committees, or PACs, and lobbyists are legally required to report what they donate to political candidates. Candidates are legally required to report what they receive. It should all add up and match, right? Wrong.
No taxpayer would or should endure the line-by-line, screen-by-screen analysis the 4 Investigates team used to reach its conclusions only to be left with even more questions.
Collectively, $150,908.74 could not be accounted for between what the PACs and lobbyists reported versus what the candidates said they received. See below for a breakdown of the findings and varying responses from the legislators. If you're on a mobile device, click here.
4 Investigates is still comparing and analyzing records connected to the rest of the legislature.
"Even finding a number from those reports was almost impossible," Barany said of the tedious process. "Are they following state law, are they not just being bribed and manipulated by these private interests? The system we have makes that pretty much impossible [to determine], I think."
The data analyzed is the only set of data that exists in the state and the only data voters can rely on. The findings raise all sorts of questions: Where is the money? Is the money missing? Are the legislators the ones to blame?
It sure seems that way for all 10 legislators, including Senators Michael Sanchez, Mary Kay Papen and Representative Nate Gentry. The state's campaign database leads voters to believe that each legislator failed to account for more than $20,000 in contributions each.
KOB contacted Senator Sanchez and his wife, Lynn, last month. She's been her husband's campaign treasurer for years and was stunned to learn of the discrepancies the 4 Investigates team identified.
"It's like no, no, no," she said.
Mrs. Sanchez proved just how meticulous she is. She keeps bank statements and photo copies of deposit slips in a collection of three-ring binders. She proved how contributors often erroneously or incompletely reported contributions to her husband's campaigns.
The lobbyists were particularly guilty of filing reports that created discrepancies, according to Mrs. Sanchez. Often, their reports look like they made direct, personal contributions. The truth is, however, they were handing over checks from their clients without documenting which clients they were representing on each contribution.
Since Mrs. Sanchez had nothing more than a name or company on a check to rely on, that's what she noted in her husband's campaign filings.
The result -- even when every penny is honestly reported, it's impossible for voters to accurately and completely follow the political money trail. All of the painstaking recordkeeping means very little since the smallest discrepancy creates an impression that the data, on the whole, are misleading and unreliable.
"It absolutely needs to be changed. It should be a priority, and I'm willing to work with anybody who's interested in trying to find a solution to this," Sen. Sanchez, D-Belen, said in an interview at his home with 4 Investigates reporter Ryan Luby.
Rep. Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is already on board.
"There's clearly a lack of transparency that you've identified," he said.
His campaign reports also revealed mismatched campaign contributions, many of them from lobbyists, Gentry said.
"So, what you have is a public who now has to try to compare apples to oranges to try to figure out who's paying for these political campaigns," he said.
Gentry and Senator Papen sent a letter to the Secretary of State's office calling for action in the wake of KOB's investigation.
Collectively, the legislators KOB has contacted agree the reporting gaps exposed are serious and should be caught on the front end, not on the back end.
The 4 Investigates team asked each of the 10 legislative leaders to attempt to account for the discrepancies in their respective records.
Until the system is fixed, the connection between money and power in New Mexico will, in a large way, remain a mystery.
"It was astonishing to me," Barany said. "I mean, this is a state government. This is one of the 50 states in the United States of America, and to have it be this unorganized blew me away."
FINDINGS AND RESPONSES
The following represents the discrepancies the 4 Investigates team identified for each of the 10 legislators analyzed. Each legislator was asked to try to account for the discrepancies. Some of them have. Others are still auditing their records, which can take a considerable amount of time. Click on each legislator's name for more detail on their progress.
- Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro: $15,250
- House Majority Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque: $25,800
- House Minority Floor Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe: $5,000
- House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas: $2,940
- House Minority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque: $7,950
- Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces: $38,891.24
- Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen: $29,210
- Senate Minority Floor Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales: $18,067.50
- Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque: $1,750
- Senate Minority Whip William Payne, R-Albuquerque: $6,050
Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4
Updated: January 12, 2017 07:25 PM
Created: November 16, 2015 09:10 PM
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