Alibi V.16 No.37 • Sept 13-19, 2007 

News Feature

Unkind Donations

Publicly financed candidates face limits on how much professional help they can seek

“In good faith.” Those three words crop up often when discussing rules for publicly financed Council candidates with interim City Clerk Randy Autio.

For the first time in Albuquerque, people running for a seat on the Council had the option of getting money from the city to run their campaigns, $1 per registered voter. It's called public financing, and this year it's on a trial run in Albuquerque [Re: Feature, "Your Tax Dollars at (Political) War," Sept. 6-12].

Proponents say the system is designed to ensure a candidate’s independence and to level the playing field, allowing anyone with enough drive to compete for a seat, regardless of his or her political connections. If opponents are using similarly sized chunks of change to run for office, then it should be anyone’s game.

What if you’ve got lots of experienced friends in politics, people who know about the campaign trail, and they’re offering their tactical advice for free? Autio says that could be considered an in-kind donation. Publicly financed candidates are only allowed to use a limited amount of in-kind donations.

Council President Debbie O'Malley may not have considered that when figuring out how to spend the $32,000 or so to defend her seat. Philip Mulller, owner of consulting company Political Technologies Inc., identified himself as a campaign adviser for O'Malley two weeks ago in an interview. Muller's company produces mail and media, gives advice to political candidates, and maintains voter files and voter lists. "I'm not getting paid a campaign fee," he says. "I'm volunteering. Because for all intents and purposes, we can't afford a professional. I produce direct mail and media for Debbie, which I get paid a little bit for. Really it requires publicly financed campaigns to be run without professional help, unless they've got volunteers like me."

But no matter how a candidate chooses to finance their campaign, with public or private moneys, certain services done for free are considered in-kind donations. If, for instance, a lawyer volunteers on a campaign to knock on doors and hand out leaflets, no problem, Autio says. But if that lawyer is volunteering by offering up legal advice, the skill that relates to her profession, that should be counted as an in-kind donation.

A publicly financed candidate can only use 10 percent of their total campaign financing as an in-kind donation, defined as gifts of goods or services, according to the Open and Ethical Elections Code. So if a Council contender received $30,000 from the city to run his campaign, he could only get $3,000 in in-kind donations. Further, he could only get $515 worth of goods and services from any one person before he has to start paying for it.

And what safeguards are in place to govern those candidates and ensure the money is spent the way the rules outline? Well, as with any election, there are two: the scrutiny of the competition and the good faith of the candidate. “Just like anything else, if a candidate goes out and distributes leaflets and doesn’t report it as an expense, we will never know about it unless someone happens to find out and report it as an ethical violation,” Autio says. “There’s the positive duty for candidates to be honest in their reporting.”

O'Malley was a strong supporter of public financing two years ago when it was put to the voters as a ballot initiative. But through the process of running as a publicly financed candidate against a well-connected opponent using the more traditional campaign fundraising method, O'Malley says she's found the new system to be a double-edged sword. "I’m learning as I'm going with this whole thing," O'Malley says. "There's a lot I'm discovering as I'm going along."

To fix the potential rule violation, O'Malley has asked Muller for a bill to cover any campaign advice he may have provided. Still, the line is unclear. "There are a lot of professional people who are volunteering for my campaign. There are people who are retired lawyers, etc. I have friends, and you'll ask for advice, and are you supposed to pay them? I don't know," she says.

Muller says he charges O'Malley for the media his company produces for her. "I get a percentage of that, a standard industry markup, and it pays me for all the services that I provide to the campaign." He said last week he's not really volunteering, but because there's so little money on a publicly financed campaign, "I get paid maybe about a fifth of what my normal fee is, so it feels like I'm volunteering, but I'm not. I'm being paid."

Bargain basement prices might count as in-kind donations, too. Interim City Clerk Autio says that would probably be up to the board of ethics and that there's not a specific regulation regarding discounts. "It wouldn't be in good faith if they're saying, 'Well, in private practice I charge $250, but for you, $10 an hour.' The point is you would have to in good faith report the actual value."

Rey Garduño is paying his son a salary to work on his campaign to avoid violating the rules regarding in-kind donations. Tomás Garduño, Rey's campaign manager, usually works as a political organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project. "I was originally going to donate my time, because I believe in the cause and I support his values," Tomás says. "But once we read the election code, we realized because I'm a professional organizer who does this for a living that it would be considered an in-kind donation."

Candidates don't have to register a list of volunteers with the city. The Alibi requested information about volunteers and their professions from every publicly financed candidate in the race. People from many potentially helpful careers, such as lawyers or advertising reps, appeared on the lists, though it was unclear in what capacity they were volunteering. Joanie Griffin's volunteer list shows a nonprofit executive director and people who work in sales, among others.

Cathryn McGill, Griffin’s campaign manager, says those people spend their time on the campaign knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets. McGill does contract work in marketing and public relations for Griffin and Associates, a company owned by Griffin. McGill says everything she does for the campaign uses the collective experience she's had over the years. She worked for the city for 17 years and worked for a nonprofit after that. "When I talk about skills I might use, it's my powers of deductive reasoning and thinking, and those are skills that I would use in any job I do. So I don't think it could be considered in-kind."