GOP lawmaker accuses Toulouse Oliver of partisanship

June 29, 2017 GMT

A top Republican legislator on Wednesday accused Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver of going soft on fellow Democrats while being “all too happy to vigorously attempt to find fault” with the campaign finances of Republicans.

In a letter to Toulouse Oliver, House GOP Whip Rod Montoya suggested her office’s recent review of campaign fundraising and spending targeted a disproportionate number of Republicans. The Secretary of State’s Office is legally required to conduct an audit every two years of randomly selected campaign finance reports filed by candidates and political action committees.

Montoya, of Farmington, also raised objections to the secretary of state’s push to tighten campaign finance regulations ahead of the 2018 election, arguing the proposed rules would give her too much power without the Legislature’s approval.

Deputy Secretary of State John Blair responded that the Secretary of State’s Office has clear legal authority to impose the new rules. He said Montoya’s accusation of partisanship in the review of campaign finance reports was a political attack and “defies logic.”

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The Secretary of State’s Office released the audit of campaign finances this month after examining the reports of 106 randomly selected candidates and PACs.

The audit scrutinized the reports of Democrats, liberal PACs, labor unions and ActBlue, which processes online campaign donations for Democratic candidates, but most of the violations discovered through the review involved Republicans.

Seventh Judicial District Attorney Clint Wellborn, a Republican, had to pay $354 in fines for spending campaign funds on expenses that the Secretary of State’s Office did not consider related to his campaign: a visit to a chiropractor, boots and a pair of compression shorts.

The review also found Share the Vision, a Republican-aligned political action committee, and former GOP state Rep. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque violated legal limits on the size of political donations. The PAC paid $200 and Pacheco paid $100 into the Public Election Fund.

“It appears that you are all too happy to vigorously attempt to find fault with a Republican’s campaign report but refuse to apply the same rigor of scrutiny to members of your party,” Montoya wrote to Toulouse Oliver.

He pointed to four Democratic lawmakers accused of violating the state’s campaign finance laws, but the allegations he mentioned arose under previous Republican secretaries of state.

Blair said staff in the Secretary of State’s Office generated the list of randomly selected candidates and PACs prior to Toulouse Oliver taking office late last year, replacing Republican Brad Winter. The list included more Democrats than Republicans.

“When you consider these facts, such claims of partisanship directed at Secretary of State Toulouse Oliver come off as ill-informed, partisan attacks,” Blair said in an email.

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Montoya’s letter requests the secretary of state turn over information about the methodology for selecting candidates and PACs for its random audit. But the audit outlines the process, explaining that the list of candidates and PACs was generated by the state’s campaign finance reporting software. The Secretary of State’s Office then conducted what it described as a “semi-automated review” of all campaign finance reports from candidates and committees on that list.

“This review was ‘semi-automated’ in that initial queries were run against the reports contained within the [computerized campaign finance system] to identify potential violations and then thoroughly reviewed by the Secretary of State before being included in this report as a finding,” the audit said.

Montoya’s letter comes only a few days after Toulouse Oliver announced her campaign for re-election and rolled out a proposal to tighten regulations on campaign finances ahead of voting in 2018.

Toulouse Oliver, who has pledged to bring greater transparency to political fundraising and spending, is proposing regulations that would, among other things, require more detail in reporting campaign expenses, as well as require a measure of transparency from “independent expenditure groups” that can now collect large sums of money without disclosing donors.

Government accountability groups and campaign finance reform advocates have cheered the proposal as a big step in untangling a convoluted election law that includes plenty of loopholes. But critics have countered that such rules could stifle advocacy and deter donors from contributing to nonprofit groups that are involved in politics but now don’t have to disclose their finances.

Montoya suggested Toulouse Oliver was overreaching in her rule-making authority by attempting to impose regulations without the Legislature’s approval. The state’s campaign finance law gives the secretary of state authority to adopt additional rules and regulations.

“Secretary of State Toulouse Oliver is promulgating these needed campaign finance reforms within the explicit authority granted to her in the Campaign Reporting Act,” Blair said.

The proposed rules, Montoya noted, include provisions of a state Senate bill vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

“Unilaterally imposing the terms of Senate Bill 96 through fiat is … dangerous and hasty,” Montoya wrote to Toulouse Oliver.

Toulouse Oliver’s office is accepting public comment on the regulations through July 12.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.