The city's Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices ruled Monday that mayoral candidate Tim Keller violated the city's election code by claiming that cash donations to his publicly financed campaign were in-kind contributions.
Despite the unanimous ruling, the board decided not to impose any penalty against Keller because it said he didn't intentionally break the election law. In the past, publicly financed candidates did the same thing, the board said.
Here's the board's ruling.
The board said that Keller's campaign consulting firm, Rio Strategies, solicited the cash contributions, deposited them in a bank account separate from Keller's campaign account, and then used the money to buy goods and services for Keller's campaign.
"During the course of the regular municipal election, approximately 50 individuals who supported Respondent's campaign wrote checks to Rio Strategies in amounts ranging from S20 to $5,000," The board's decision said. "These checks were deposited in a separate bank account maintained by Rio Strategies and not the campaign bank checking account.
"Rio Strategies used these monies to purchase a variety of goods and services for the benefit of Respondent's campaign. There is no evidence the individuals who provided these checks were told what specific expense would be paid from their monies. Respondent reported these contributions on his campaign finance reports. Respondent listed these monies as "in-kind contributions" for such things as professional services, office supplies and rent."
The report continued:
"Alan Packman, a partner of Rio Strategies, had access to, and was a signatory on,
both the Rio Strategies checking account and the campaign checking account for Respondent. He thus was able to determine which campaign expenditures should be paid out of the campaign bank checking account and which should be paid out of the separate monies collected by Rio Strategies. These decisions were made with the knowledge and consent of Respondent and his campaign.
"The relationship between Respondent, 'Tim Keller for Albuquerque' and Rio
Strategies was so highly intertwined and connected as to make it difficult to distinguish one from another. More specifically, there was no clear demarcation between which campaign contributions and expenditures were attributable to the Open and Ethical Elections Fund or any collected Seed Money, and which were assignable to the funds contributed by private individuals. All of the monies collected were used for the benefit of the candidate's campaign."
The board said that it didn't fine or sanction Keller because he didn't purposely violate the election law.
"The present case, no fine or reprimand is warranted. This finding is based on several things," the board said. "The undisputed witness testimony showing that other candidates who had accepted public financing in earlier campaigns had engaged in similar practices in the past; The undisputed witness testimony that Rio Strategies had relied on similar practices in the past and recommended this plan to Respondent; The documentary evidence and witness testimony that these practices had been informally approved by the City Auditor in other campaigns; and Respondent acted in good faith and did not intend to violate either the Elections Code or the Open and Ethical Elections Code of the City Charter."
Keller's opponent in Tuesday's runoff election, City Councilor Dan Lewis, praised the decision and ripped Keller and his campaign for allegedly lying to city voters.
"This ruling serves as proof that Tim Keller lied to Albuquerque voters and illegally worked with his political allies to funnel cash to his campaign," Lewis said in a written statement. "How can we trust Tim to hold criminals in this city accountable when he thinks he is above the law himself? Sadly, Albuquerque's catch and release program is paying off for Tim, with the ethics board letting him off the hook despite finding him guilty.
"Despite labeling himself as a 'certified clean elections candidate,' Tim Keller is currently under investigation for two additional ethics complaints that have been filed against him. Decisions on these cases will not be decided until after Tuesday's election."
Keller issued this statement regarding the board's ruling:
"“We appreciate the administrative clarification provided by the board today. I accept the decision of the board and appreciate their insight regarding segregation of accounts. The board’s decision will provide needed clarity going forward for maintaining an accessible and robust public finance system. “Though our opponents have used trumped up terms like dishonest, “money laundering” and “cash under the table,” those assertions were always baseless and the board’s ruling confirmed that today. That came out loud and clear in today’s ruling which emphatically notes our good faith efforts."
Keller, the state auditor and a former state senator, got $343,000 in taxpayer money to run his initial campaign. Because he was a publicly financed candidate, Keller was barred from accepting other monetary contributions. But supporters were allowed to make up to $38,000 in in-kind contributions.
In reality, the board's decision, which is serious, might not have much of an effect on Tuesday's election. That's because more than 55,000 voters cast early ballots in the race. That could be more than half of the possible turnout. In the Oct. 3 election, a total of 93,475 people cast ballots in the eight-person race.
And an Albuquerque Journal poll published Sunday had Keller with a 19-point lead over Lewis.
If that lead appears in the early vote totals, it would take a near miracle for Lewis to catch Keller on election day.