New Mexico Secretary of State Mary Herrera said her office is working closely and quickly with the state Attorney General’s Office to finish the investigation into the state Republican Party’s vote-buying scandal.
The agencies want the investigation completed before the state GOP’s statewide convention on Saturday, Herrera said late Tuesday in an exclusive interview with this blog.
Herrera also said she was troubled by the allegations that the campaigns --- including Congresswoman Heather Wilson’s U.S. Senate campaign --- had paid people to attend the Bernalillo County, NM GOP’s ward conventions on Feb. 17 and vote for certain delegates.
“It’s something new --- people being paid to get to conventions. I’ve never heard of it. I’ve been attending (Democratic Party) ward and state conventions since I’ve been 18 and I’ve never heard of anything like this. Now we have paying people to do it. It seems very odd,” Herrera said during the face-to-face interview in Albuquerque.
New evidence emerged in the case that offers a reason why Wilson’s campaign was suddenly forced to admit that they paid for at least five people to attend the conventions, after initially refusing to comment on the allegations of vote-buying at the Feb. 17 Bernalillo County GOP’s ward conventions: A paper trail...
Wilson’s campaign paid at least four people with checks. Those checks went to four people to attend conventions in Bernalillo County wards 31, 23 and 24.
The AG’s office is expected to get copies of those checks today.
“We are working fast because their convention is Saturday, and we are working closely with the Attorney General’s office,” Herrera said.
County GOP Chair Confirms Investigation
Bernalillo County, NM's Republican Party Chairman Fernando C. de Baca confirmed that he had been called by the Secretary of State’s office on Tuesday morning about the vote-buying allegations and that he talked to NM Bureau of Elections chief Daniel Miera for more than an hour about the issue.
“I was called by the head of the Bureau of Elections. He asked me about the convention procedures and asked if I had seen any checks written by Heather Wilson’s campaign and if the checks had any names,” de Baca said.
“I told him that there were four checks, that they were made out to the Bernalillo County Republican Party and that they had no names. He told me he would need copies of them, that he would be meeting with representatives of the Attorney General’s Office and that they were conducting an investigation.
“I informed this party’s executive board about the allegations and that there was an ongoing investigation of the matter by Secretary of State’s Office.”
Wilson’s Campaign Checks
Copies of the checks written by Wilson’s Senate campaign exist because the Bernalillo County GOP keeps meticulous records of all money it receives. All checks the party receives, as well as all large amounts of cash—are photocopied. That’s right; the party even photocopies large bills and records their serial numbers! In most cases, the party can trace specific bills to specific donors.
The investigators have asked for all the county party’s convention records so they can try to match Wilson’s check numbers to specific attendees. The party’s records include lists of all convention attendees, if they paid, and how they paid—whether by check or cash. So it shouldn’t take long for investigators to match the checks with names.
Wilson’s checks were written to the county GOP. Each one was for $30, which was the convention registration fee, and none mentioned that the purpose of the money was to pay for people to attend the conventions.
Two checks were received from Ward 31 in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, and one each came in from Wards 23 and 24.
The checks were the large, business-type design. The check from Ward 24 was numbered 7291, while the one from Ward 23 was numbered 7292—which shows they were written in sequence. The two from Ward 31 were numbered 7254 and 7263. That interruption in sequence could lead investigators to ask whether Wilson’s campaign wrote checks to convention attendees in other counties. It’s not clear if the checks were written on the day of the convention. If they were written days before the convention, investigators might start looking at just how premeditated the vote-buying effort was.
Former Gov. Dave Cargo Vindicated
The Wilson campaign checks vindicate New Mexico's former two-term Governor Dave Cargo, whom the state GOP has tried to smear in recent days as a disloyal Republican who was angry because he wasn’t elected a delegate to the March 15 state convention.
The 31st Ward is where the controversy over the vote-buying scandal erupted. Cargo was the ward’s chairman, and he’s the one who went to the news media with allegations that certain campaigns had paid people’s registration fees for the conventions, which were held to nominate delegates to the state GOP’s March 15 statewide nominating convention. Those delegates to the statewide convention will vote on which candidates will be on the party’s June primary election ballot. Cargo also said he heard people at his ward convention say they had been paid by certain campaigns $35-an-hour to attend the function.
State GOP officials blasted the 79-year-old Cargo after he made the allegations. And, when then-KKOB Radio afternoon drive time news anchor Laura MacCallum aired stories about Cargo’s complaints and the alleged vote-buying scheme, state party officials and Wilson campaign operatives called the station to complain that Cargo was a disgruntled loser who had no credibility.
KKOB News Director Pat Allen eventually killed MacCallum’s stories on the subject, saying in a bizarre memo that the stories weren’t valid because other news outlets and bloggers had not picked them up.
MacCallum resigned in protest, citing unethical practices and inappropriate, politically motivated interference by her station's corporate management.
After their award-winning report left the station, Allen offered this blog a different reason for having spiked MacCallum's investigative reports.
Cargo has also said that the vote-buying scheme is a fourth-degree felony under New Mexico law. The law says it's a crime for someone to offer a bribe for a vote and to accept a bribe to vote a certain way.
Cargo said the checks vindicate his allegations and prove that state Republican Party operatives "are a closed little group who operate on the basis of hate."
"This happened right in my ward, which is what I said," Cargo added. "They paint me as being disloyal and they were the ones doing the corrupting. Instead of admitting what they did, they tried to smear me."
And the Ward 24 caucus was where state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones (R-Albuquerque), said she had that people had been paid by certain campaigns to attend.
State GOP officials have said that the convention fees were legitimate charges because they paid to rent a ballroom at the Albuquerque Marriott where the conventions were held.
Checks Could Cause Wilson Reporting Problems
How Wilson’s campaign reports the checks on its campaign finance reports to the Federal Elections Commission could eventually be of some interest. Will it call them donations to the Bernalillo County Republican Party, or will it be honest and say the money was paid for people to attend ward conventions and vote a certain way?
Cargo says that in the eyes of the FEC, "buying votes is not a legitimate campaign expense."
Investigators might eventually be looking at that, as well.
Dennis Domrzalski has been a reporter for 27 years, having worked at The Albuquerque Tribune, Weekly Alibi, New Mexico Business Weekly and the City News Bureau of Chicago. He has been covering the Heather Wilson/NM GOP "Vote-Buying" Scandal at f-brilliant and serves as the co-host of the Eye on New Mexico Sunday morning TV talk show on Albuquerque's NBC affiliate KOB-TV Channel 4. He also hosts the local cable program, Legends of New Mexico on Gov. 16.