News Column

NM Lawmaker Accused of Improper Campaign Spending

Oct. 12, 2012

Walter Rubel

A complaint has been filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State's Office alleging that Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of Dona Ana has violated state campaign finance laws.

The complaint was filed by Bryan B. Stegall, treasurer for the campaign of Lee Cotter of Las Cruces, the Republican candidate opposing Garcia in the Senate District 36 election. It alleges improper use of campaign funds. In her response to the Secretary of State's Office, Garcia said the use of campaign funds for travel expenses to attend legislative meetings was allowed, and she included numerous receipts from hotels, restaurants and gas stations.

Stegall said in his complaint that he spent several months researching candidate filings, and "identified several discrepancies that violate current campaign law," in Garcia's filing.

"For the past several election cycles, Madame Garcia has consistently withdrawn campaign funds as 'cash' from her campaign account, paid directly to herself," the complaint states. It also alleges that, "There is no information as to what, or where this 'cash' expense was paid to, or for what purpose."

In her response, Garcia said the money was spent on expenses she incurred while attending interim legislative committee meetings throughout the state.

"The campaign funds were not transferred to my 'personal account and used for personal gain, or expenses' as alleged by Mr. Stegall," Garcia wrote to the Secretary of State's Office. "My normal practice

is to pay cash for my travel expenses while attending interim committee hearings.

"I do not believe my actions violate New Mexico's campaign finance laws. However, in an effort to remove even a hint of impropriety, I will reimburse my campaign fund if your office deems it appropriate."

Garcia said Thursday she believes the complaint is politically motivated.

"It's amazing to me they would come out with something like this now," she said. "The timing is very political, absolutely, and the fact that he is my opponent's treasurer."

A review of Garcia's campaign finance reports available on the Secretary of State's website shows several withdrawals to pay for travel expenses. Those are listed as "Cash expenses for committee work," in her 2012 reports. But prior to that had been listed simply as "Cash."

Each of the withdrawals listed the committee meeting, location and date of the meeting.

However, along with the interim committee meetings, which are held during the months when the Legislature is not in session, and Garcia cited in her letter to the Secretary of State, she also listed expenses of $1,500 to attend the regular session in 2010, $400 to attend the special session that year and $600 to attend a special session in 2009.

The complaint by Stegall comes on the heels of a report by Jim Scarantino on the New Mexico Watchdog website, a project of the Rio Grange Foundation, a conservative think tank. It was the second report the website has done alleging improper expenses by Democratic lawmakers. The first targeted Rep. Miguel Garcia, no relation to Mary Jane Garcia.

In his report, Scarantino cites New Mexico law that prohibits the use of campaign funds for "personal and legislative living expenses." While New Mexico lawmakers are not paid a salary, they are paid a per diem of $154 a day for each day they are in session. They are also reimbursed for travel and lodging expenses to attend interim committee meetings.

Garcia said the situation was complicated because she travels so much as a legislator.

"It's in the hands of the Secretary of State," she said. "Once I hear her determination, that's what I will do."

In its letter to Garcia requesting a response to the complaint, the Secretary of State's Office states that, "If, after investigating the positions of each party, we believe a violation of any of the above referenced laws appear to have occurred, we will notify you of our position and the complaint may be turned over to the New Mexico Attorney General's Office or a district attorney."



Source: (c)2012 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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