Friday, September 13, 2013

Dark Money Supporting Martinez Raises Tricky Legal And Ethical Issues; We Explore, Plus: Ties Between NM Competes and Guv's Political Adviser Are Deep 

"New Mexico Competes," the dark money, political nonprofit that surfaced this week and whose leadership has deep ties to the Martinez administration, is doing more than running radio ads supporting Governor Martinez. We've learned that over the summer the now controversial group has been hiring canvassers in Roswell at $14 an hour to "identify conservatives" and register them to vote.

New Mexico Competes is now seeking to hire canvassers to identify conservatives, who are opposed to ObamaCare and its economic impact and register them to vote in Roswell, New Mexico.

That news comes on the heels of news of a statewide radio buy from NM Competes that supports the Martinez administration's controversial decision to suspend 15 NM behavioral health groups and replace them with Arizona firms. (The radio ad is posted on Thursday's blog).

Martinez says an out-of-state audit raises allegations of fraud in the NM firms which receive their funding via Medicaid. But the audit hasn't been released and the suspended nonprofits are fighting back.

NM Competes operates under loose campaign laws that allow certain nonprofits to collect all the money they want and not disclose who gives it to them. There is one prohibition, however. Such nonprofits are not allowed to coordinate their political activities with a candidate's campaign--such as Governor Martinez's. 

But the Governor may be brushing up against that line--or even crossing it.

We've learned that Alex Tarascio, who is organizing Roswell for NM Competes, lists himself as an account executive at Lincoln Strategy Group, an Arizona-based political consulting firm. That's the same group that Jay McCleskey, the Governor's chief campaign strategist, worked for before leaving it and forming McCleskey Media Strategies. Tarascio also lists himself on his Linked In profile as field coordinator for "Grassroots Outreach."

As an employee of a so-called 501(c)4 nonprofit, IRS rules say Tarascio is prohibited from coordinating political strategy with McCleskey on behalf of Martinez.

The executive director of NM Competes is Sara Lister--a longtime political ally of McCleskey. She is a former deputy cabinet secretary in the Workforce Solutions Department of the Martinez administration.

Lister also managed the 2008 campaign of GOP ABQ congressional candidate Darren White and that of Republican Jon Barela in 2010. Barela is now the state's economic development secretary. McCleskey did Barela's media while Lister managed the campaign.

Lister also served as an $84,000 a year aide to ABQ Mayor Richard Berry. McCleskey is Berry's political and media adviser. Previously, she was the chief fund-raiser for NM GOP US Senator Pete Domenici and was deputy directory of President Bush's 2004 NM campaign.

Under federal law, Lister is also prohibited from coordinating campaign strategy with McCleskey on behalf of Martinez or with the Governor directly.


These are very deep associations among the operatives for the dark money nonprofit and the Governor's official campaign. They raise serious questions about how independent NM Competes will be from the Governor's campaign. McCleskey said this week:

Gov. Martinez and her political committee did not form this organization, nor control its activities.

Lister says the group will be active during the '14 election cycle.

The question going forward is whether Lister and Tarscio in any way coordinate with McCleskey and/or Martinez. Who's to know? Who's watching?

Apart from the legalities there is the politics of this for the Governor. She promised "a new level of transparency" when she campaigned in 2010, but she has been taken to task numerous times by news organizations for not being transparent. A chief example was the use of personal email accounts by top administration figures to conduct public business--a practice Martinez now says has been halted.

Now we have "NM Competes: which promises to stay active through the '14 cycle and appears to be very well-funded.  $14 an hour is good pay for a Roswell canvasser and a statewide radio buy doesn't come cheap.

Where does this money come from that seeks to be so influential in New Mexico public policy and the Governor campaign to come?

Are they donors with a financial interest in the outcome of Martinez administration policy? If they were giving to her Governor campaign, voters would be able to evaluate. But under the rules NM Competes operates under none of us will know--but it will feed suspicions.

From the start of her term, McCleskey and his associates have been said to comprise a "shadow government." He firmly denies it. Now we have the prospect of an unaccountable, multi-million dollar "shadow campaign" operating on behalf of Martinez--and one that raises legitimate suspicions that it is not completely separate from her own campaign as the law demands.

A new level of transparency? Maybe you need those 3-D glasses to see it because from here it looks about as transparent as a black curtain.


The secret money that is financing the radio ads slamming the behavioral health groups that have been suspended under Martinez and replaced with five Arizona firms gave an opening to '14 Dem Guv candidate Gary King:

Gov. Martinez should tell voters who is behind these campaign radio spots. We are concerned it may be the Arizona providers that have been selected by her, and awarded $18 million of taxpayers’ money? Is it her new friends the Koch brothers?,” asked Jim Farrell, manager for Gary King for Governor. 

“For someone whose central campaign theme was transparency and openness in government, it’s quite hypocritical to have these shadowy, secretly funded groups come into New Mexico to influence the outcome of the election in 2014.

Both Martinez and Attorney General King say they can't release the audit of the behavioral care groups because it is part of a criminal investigation.

On August 7, we reported on the possible political connections between Martinez and the Arizona firms that were brought in to replace the NM behavioral nonprofits


There is also dark money on the side that is fighting Martinez's suspension of  the NM behavioral nonprofits and like NM Competes they have come with radio advertising:

The group is called "New Mexicans Fighting For Behavioral Health."...Like the group New Mexico Competes, which produced radio spots praising Martinez for her behavioral health actions -- New Mexicans Fighting For Behavioral Health does not have to disclose its donors. Lobbyist Linda Siegle, said the group is acting through a non-profit called Resource for Change Policy Works that she started several years ago with her wife Liz Stefanics.

The radio ad criticizing the Governor is here.


Our winner of $50 this week for the best news tip wishes to remain anonymous. But, boy, did they make a splash.

On Tuesday we broke the news to the state that radio ads had begun in support of the Martinez administration's controversial decision to suspend Medicaid payments to NM behavioral nonprofits and replace them with Arizona firms. Our reader and tipster heard the ads while driving through Roswell and promptly informed us, giving us the scoop.

We're celebrating ten years of blogging this month and will be awarding another $50 for the best news tip (or email) next week. It's our way of saying thanks for your support today and through the years.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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