Senate candidate gets heat for painfully slow investigation

July 22, 2019 GMT

Politicians who use the buzzword “transparency” run a certain risk.

If they somehow bury investigations that could be harmful to their pals or allies, they look like double-dealing descendants of an old political machine.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has opened herself to this criticism.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, is running for the U.S. Senate, and part of her platform is what she calls “a deep and abiding commitment to transparency and fairness.” Her message is better than the boring, nonstop pleas for money by her opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

The trouble for Toulouse Oliver is that she didn’t do an evenhanded job in investigating two high-profile complaints involving campaign rules she established.

One requirement says political groups that raise or spend at least $500 in a year must file financial statements with the Secretary of State’s Office.

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Toulouse Oliver promptly enforced this rule in April 2018 after receiving a complaint from a teachers’ union against an organization called New Mexico Democrats for Democracy. It advertised on Facebook for Jeff Apodaca, a long-shot candidate for governor. The group also tore into Apodaca’s main rival for the nomination, Democratic Party powerhouse Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s now the governor.

Toulouse Oliver’s staff did not show the same diligence when New Mexico Democrats for Democracy filed a complaint in May 2018 against the liberal group Retake Our Democracy.

Retake Our Democracy had solicited money for its two favored candidates for the state Public Regulation Commission. “Please bring your checkbook,” it wrote about its reception for the candidates.

The complaint listed other allegations against Retake Our Democracy, including not reporting its income and expenses on campaigns.

Paul Gibson and Roxanne Barber, describing themselves as co-founders of the organization, rebutted the charges in a lengthy statement to the secretary of state in June 2018.

On Sept. 13, Toulouse Oliver’s elections director wrote a letter to Gibson and Barber saying their organization might be a political committee as defined by state law. This would mean they would have to register with the Secretary of State’s Office and file campaign disclosure reports.

But the letter wasn’t sent. No one in Toulouse Oliver’s office can explain why.

“That’s our bad. It’s something we regret,” said her spokesman, Alex Curtas.

Toulouse Oliver said what happened was human error, but she called it inexcusable.

“It’s very unclear to me how this final determination letter was not sent. It’s not acceptable,” she said.

The letter to Gibson and Barber finally was sent last Friday, 10 months after it was written.

Dig deeper and this story of inefficiency or political favoritism only gets weirder.

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Albuquerque resident Larry Sonntag in January wrote to Toulouse Oliver’s office to ask what had become of the complaint against Retake Our Democracy. He believed the case was being swept into oblivion for political reasons.

Sonntag pointed out that Mariel Nanasi was listed as secretary of Retake Our Democracy. She also is executive director of the advocacy group New Energy Economy. Both organizations worked to defeat the same two Public Regulation Commission members in last year’s election.

Sonntag wanted to know why Toulouse Oliver’s office had clamped down on a right-leaning organization but done nothing about the liberal Retake Our Democracy group.

He received an answer on Jan. 24 from Jennifer Romero, then the ethics compliance officer in Toulouse Oliver’s office.

“As we discussed this afternoon, a decision has been made in this matter,” Romero wrote. “A final determination letter will be sent to the parties in the near future.”

Once again, the letter was not sent. And again, Toulouse Oliver can’t explain why.

Sonntag spoke in person to Toulouse Oliver about the investigation being mishandled. She told me she remembered the conversation and that Sonntag said the case involved Nanasi.

Toulouse Oliver said she immediately checked into the matter but found nothing. She said that’s because the complaint against Retake Our Democracy did not list Nanasi.

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of Open Access NM, helped revive the investigation last week. He says Toulouse Oliver and her staff didn’t do their job.

“We expect a high level of alacrity, but too often leaders put political calculations ahead of judicious decisions,” St. Cyr said.

Toulouse Oliver calls such criticism unfair. She says it ignores the fact that she forced political organizations into the open. More important, she said, her office has handled all other complaints efficiently.

She promises to make sure no other investigation derails.

Just a thought, but a refresher course might be in order.

Always hit the send button when a letter is finished, regardless of whether its destination is hard right, far left or anything in between.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.