US judge hears fight over New Mexico campaign contributions
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Oct. 17, 2017
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It will be up to a U.S. district judge whether Republican Steve Pearce will be allowed to tap nearly $1 million in political contributions he collected while in Congress to use in his gubernatorial run.
Judge Judith Herrera heard hours of testimony during a hearing Monday in Albuquerque. She indicated she will make a decision soon on whether to grant Pearce's request for a preliminary injunction to block the secretary of state's office from enforcing limitations on campaign transfers from money raised in non-state races.
Under a campaign reporting law adopted in 2009, candidates running for state offices can transfer funds from one campaign account to another if they're running for a new state office.
Despite concerns about the constitutionality of the provision, state election officials contend there's no mechanism that allows any candidate to transfer unlimited federal funds into a state campaign account under New Mexico's Campaign Reporting Act.
Nicholas Sydow, an attorney for the secretary of state's office, told the judge that 26 other states limit these types of contributions. He argued that federal rules allow for larger contributions by individual donors and allowing such campaign contributions into a state race could compromise the intent of the law, which was to prevent corruption.
Pearce's attorneys challenged that idea, arguing that contributions collected while Pearce was running for Congress were made under more stringent federal election rules that call for the names, occupations and employers of the donors to be reported to shed light on whether any one corporation is seeking to influence the political process.
In federal campaigns, candidates must also keep track of the total each donor contributes within an election cycle to ensure limits are not exceeded.
Matt Hoyt, an attorney for Pearce, said the state reporting law treats federal and state candidates differently and that the secretary of state's interpretation of the statute is infringing upon Pearce's constitutional right to free speech.
Top officials with Pearce's campaign testified that without access to the money, the campaign has been forced to put off the hiring of more staff and hasn't been able to buy air time to counter a series of attack ads.
"We are being harmed every day by this," Hoyt said.
Monday's testimony offered a glimpse into the inner workings of campaigning, from the race to hire talented staffers to the need for a hefty war chest to pay for costly advertising and get-out-the vote efforts in the waning weeks of a campaign.
There was also the suggestion that politics was playing a role in the dispute because Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is a Democrat. The state denied the allegation.
No one disputed New Mexico's history of corruption stemming from pay-to-play scandals and questionable campaign contributions, which prompted adoption of the 2009 law. However, witnesses for the secretary of state's office could not point to any specific instances where a transfer between a candidate's accounts has been found to be corrupt.