Ethics commission affirms state treasurer Laura Montoya violated campaign finance law

Dec. 20—The State Ethics Commission has upheld a hearing officer's decision finding State Treasurer Laura Montoya violated campaign finance reporting laws by accepting $10,000 in concealed contributions.

The commission's decision, which comes after it heard oral arguments earlier this month, stems from an ethics complaint lodged against Montoya by her political nemesis, former State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, and appeals of the hearing officer's order filed by both Montoya and Eichenberg, who largely prevailed in the case.

Montoya wrote in a text message Wednesday her predecessor's complaint has been nothing but a political distraction.

"While I appreciate the commission's affirmation of the hearing officer's conclusion that there was no evidence of bad faith or harm to the public, I am looking forward to getting on with the state's business as I was elected to do," she wrote.

Eichenberg, who could not be reached for comment, had supported his former chief of staff, Heather Benavidez, over Montoya in the highly contentious Democratic primary race in 2022.

The race, dubbed an ugly slugfest, was peppered with attacks and counterattacks between Eichenberg and Montoya, who beat Benavidez handily and then went on to win the general election.

Before the primary, Eichenberg filed a complaint alleging Montoya knowingly accepted $10,000 in campaign contributions in which the original donor was disguised and unknown.

An investigation revealed Montoya had received the money from a real estate developer through a political action committee that acted as a conduit and then failed to report the true source of the contribution in campaign finance reports.

Retired U.S. Magistrate Alan Torgerson concluded Oct. 3 Montoya had violated the Campaign Reporting Act by knowingly receiving $10,000 in "straw donor" campaign contributions. Torgerson imposed a $1,000 civil penalty but didn't order Montoya to return the contributions "because there is little evidence of bad faith on the part of [Montoya] or of public harm."

In his findings of fact and conclusions of law, Torgerson called Montoya's testimony at a public hearing "inconsistent and not credible."

Even though he essentially prevailed in the complaint, Eichenberg appealed Togerson's decision.

So did Walker Boyd, intervening general counsel for the commission.

The pair argued Montoya shouldn't just pay a civil fine but should forfeit the $10,000 in contributions "as a result of an unlawful solicitation," a news release states.

Montoya filed her own appeal, claiming Torgerson's "findings and conclusions were reversible, based on a lack of substantial evidence," the release states.

A public hearing and witness depositions revealed new details about the case, including a donor who expressed concerns about being hit up for money by other political candidates if his name appeared on campaign finance reports next to a significant contribution.

The findings of fact state Donald "Donnie" Leonard invited Montoya to a lunch meeting in Corrales with potential donors Sept. 21, 2021. Leonard is a former Sandoval County commissioner who was volunteering on her campaign at the time.

Montoya gave a short speech to the 10 or so people in attendance and solicited contributions.

After the lunch ended, Montoya texted Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver with a question about contribution limits.

"So if a PAC gives me $10,000 is that ok to report in this report as the full $10k or do I have to only report $5,200," she asked via text, according to the report.

"Montoya testified that she wasn't sure why she made her inquiries to the Secretary of State about contribution limits on September 21, 2021," the report states.

Meanwhile, Leonard and Gary Plante, a real estate developer who attended the lunch, drove separately to a nearby bank.

"Two cashier's checks, both in the amount of $5,000 and both made payable to Adelante Sandoval, were created and dated September 21, 2021," the report states.

Adelante Sandoval is a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates in Sandoval County, where Montoya previously served two terms as treasurer.

That same afternoon, Montoya received a text from Chris Daul, a political consultant who manages the PAC.

"I'm trying to call you but it wont go thru. Try calling me," Daul texted.

Montoya responded less than two hours later with a thumbs- up emoji and also sent him a screenshot of her text exchange with Toulouse Oliver.

Four days later, the PAC wrote a check for $10,000 to "Laura Montoya 4 NM." The check was cashed Sept. 27, 2021.

Daul testified his PAC gave the $10,000 to Montoya's campaign because, "based on a conversation that had taken place at some point, I was asked to make that contribution to her," the report states. "It was his understanding that [the two $5,000 contributions] had been earmarked for Ms. Montoya."

Though he didn't recall who gave the order, Daul testified "he had narrowed the earmarking instruction as most likely coming from" Leonard or Montoya.

Campaign finance reports show Montoya reported receiving two separate contributions from Adelante Sandoval on Sept. 27, 2021, one for $5,200 and the other for $4,800.

The PAC had contributed $500 to Montoya's campaign a month earlier, exceeding the limit of $10,400, an "error" that prompted Montoya's campaign to return $100 to the PAC as an "excess contribution," according to the report.

The hearing officer found Montoya's text to the secretary of state implied she knew Adelante Sandoval would be receiving a directed contribution from Plante.

"The circumstantial evidence regarding the timing of the text to the Secretary of State (minutes after the lunch ended), the text from Mr. Daul that he was trying to call her at 2:15 pm that afternoon, and her emoji of a thumbs up at 4:01 pm is circumstantial evidence that Ms. Montoya was aware of the directed contribution and of the fact that it was $10,000," the report states.

In a text exchange with The New Mexican, Montoya denied the assertion her testimony was inconsistent and not credible.

"I have been consistent throughout this process," she wrote.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.