SANTA FE – New Mexico’s newly elected secretary of state will be greeted by a stack of political campaign finance filings flagged for possible violations, a shrinking budget and lingering mistrust.
Secretary-elect Maggie Toulouse Oliver may take office ahead of schedule – as soon as Dec. 9 – under regulations allowing for the early replacement of the agency’s interim leader.
In a postelection interview, the longtime Bernalillo County Clerk said she may call on the state auditor to help review campaign spending disclosures.
The office has 40 days after an election to randomly select 10 percent of filings and begin a review for compliance with state reporting statutes – a process that will likely stretch into the new year.
Toulouse Oliver also said she’ll advocate for legislation to depoliticize the agency by creating an independent ethics commission and implementing public financing in future elections for secretary of state.
Spending in the race nearly topped $1 million this year, with Toulouse Oliver outspending Republican challenger Nora Espinoza 2-1.
“Voters wanted the most qualified, competent person in the Secretary of State’s Office, and I think our message of transparency and reform also resonated,” Toulouse Oliver said. “The people of New Mexico are tired of waking up to corruption scandals with elected officials of New Mexico. They reacted to our commitment.”
Democrats and Republicans are drawing up new proposals for an independent ethics body that would take responsibility for judging campaign finance and other transgressions away from the Secretary of State’s Office and legislative committees. Similar legislative proposals have repeatedly failed.
New Mexico is one of eight states without an independent ethics commission. The state relies essentially on two agencies overseen by elected officials – the attorney general and secretary of state – to vet campaign finance reports and pursue violations and indications of corruption.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said there are eight recent political ethics complaints under review and declined to provide further information.
Toulouse Oliver will fill the last two years of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s term. Duran resigned in 2015 and was convicted on embezzlement and money laundering charges. She acknowledged violating laws she was supposed to uphold by using campaign funds to fuel a gambling spree.
University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said the agency has seen competent management this year under appointed Secretary of State Brad Winter – despite a tumultuous legacy.
“The office has been plagued by scandals and downright crime in the case of Duran,” she said.
Before Duran, one-term former Secretary of State Mary Herrera was accused of politicizing the office by asking employees to work on her re-election campaign. An investigation into allegations against the Democrat was later dropped.
Herrera’s predecessor, Rebecca Vigil-Giron, was indicted after leaving office in 2006 in connection with the misuse of federal voter education money. Charges were dropped based on lengthy trial delays, while two outside associates were convicted.
It will fall to Toulouse Oliver to replace an online campaign finance information system that has been widely criticized for obscuring sources and destinations of political spending. The Legislature approved the upgrade but hasn’t provided funding.
Elections Director Kari Fresquez said more than 35 campaign finance warnings left from Duran’s tenure have been resolved through clarifications or by collecting fines and setting up payment plans.
Dozens of cases remain open, and the staff is trying to resolve this year’s barrage of election-season complaints before Toulouse Oliver arrives.
The office has moved to a strict schedule of warnings and fines of $50 a day for candidates and political committees that miss disclosure deadlines.