Nationwide, the state of campaign finance laws appears to be in constant flux. The unpredictability of lawmakers and the influence of public opinion may perhaps be most obvious in New Mexico, where the sentencing of a top official for abusing campaign funds has initiated a series of violations and reprisals.
The arrest of a public servant
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported, New Mexico's former secretary of state Dianna Duran received 30 days in jail for siphoning funds from her election account. Over the course of the trial, it came out that Duran had used the money during a gambling binge. After pleading guilty to a felony embezzlement charge and four misdemeanor counts, Duran's sentence was reduced.
"I'll apologize to the people of New Mexico, to my family and my friends," Duran told the court, according to the AP. "And I'm truly sorry."
While she didn't have to serve the 7.5-year sentence handed down, Duran was ordered to repay the $14,000 she gambled away in 2012 and 2013.
"This clash has led to ramifications for politicians and PACs statewide."
A bitter irony of Duran's fall from grace was the fact that, as secretary of state, she was in charge of running and enforcing New Mexico's campaign finance and elections laws. It wasn't obvious at the time of the trial, but this clash over a betrayal of the citizens' trust would have ramifications for politicians and political action committees statewide.
A chain reaction of violations
Duran's case opened the proverbial can of worms in New Mexico politics. In short order, violations began to spill out into the public sphere.
These included, but were not limited to, Albuquerque Representative Antonio Maestas' admission that his campaign had not reported more than $11,000 in contributions; 30-year House Representative James Roger Madalena of Jemez Pueblo begrudgingly acknowledging that campaign funds had gone toward such essentials as Nike apparel and a satellite TV package; and former Sen. Phil Griego potentially coming under investigation for dishing out thousands of dollars to political consultants, office space rentals and travel costs – all after resigning from office.
The result of this embarrassing series of violations has been a chastised acknowledgment from New Mexico officials that journalists and political informants have been doing the work that should rightfully be the domain of election law compliance officers.
"Right now, enforcement is based on tattle-tail resources," said Kari Fresquez, the state's elections directors, according to the AP.
New Mexico has had mixed success in reforming campaign finance compliance laws over the years. In 2009, multiple corruption cases led to the signing of contribution limit laws, but since then, attempts to close certain loopholes – like the one that permits donor names to be kept secret by support groups – have been unable to gain much traction.
The creation of an ethics commission was proposed during a 30-day session in early 2016. That proposal passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate Rules committee after amendments were proposed that would have gutted the enforcement provisions. This issue will not go away, however, with the Senate expected to take the issue up again in 2017.
Political action committees, meanwhile, should prepare themselves for probing eyes and potential audits. The AP reported that the amplified scrutiny following in Duran's wake has turned the spotlight on New Mexico PACs and support groups in a big way, with a shocking 32 cases of illicit spending activities or reporting delinquencies making their way to the attorney general's desk.
"It's important that we have strict compliance across the board," said Attorney General Hector Balderas. "These are million-dollar accounts being [managed] as if they are lemonade stand accounts. They need to be taken more seriously."
It may still be some time before New Mexico's campaign finance laws match the severity of those in states like California or New York, but PACs shouldn't waste it by being idle. Now, rather than later, is the best time to enlist the support of an excellent administrative team and stay ahead of the curve.