ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – An Albuquerque City Council candidate has been accused of campaign finance fraud. Specifically, that his team did not properly collect campaign contributions needed to qualify for public funding. Now, critics want to see him pay back a big chunk of taxpayer change.
Albuquerque’s City Council District 1 has been represented by the same man for more than 10 years – Ken Sanchez. This October, however, he’s being challenged by several candidates, one of them Javier Benavidez.
Benavidez may be a familiar name and face. He served as director of the Southwest Organizing Project and has been outspoken on political issues, notably being thrown out of President Trump’s campaign rally in Albuquerque last year while chanting, “Stop the hate!”
Now, Benavidez has been accused of campaign finance fraud in his race to unseat Sanchez.
“This is, I think, political retribution for a lot of the work I did at places like SWOP,” he told KRQE News 13.
The complaint was submitted by Stella Padilla, a write-in candidate for mayor, and was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time time something like this has happened within the city,” Inspector General David Harper told KRQE News 13.Harper’s office turned over its report, complete Aug. 25, to the city’s Board of Ethics.
“All we did was provide the facts as were conveyed to us,” Harper said.
The complaint states that when Benavidez’s campaign reps were out seeking at least 381 people to contribute $5 on the spot, to qualify Benavidez for $38,000 in public financing, some of the reps may have broken city ordinance.
Namely, the OIG report says several citizens interviewed claimed they contributed no money or just $1 or $2 to the campaign, but not the necessary $5. In some of those cases, people said the campaign reps still got their signature and promised to cover the money.
When the reps were interviewed, one said she didn’t think that was a “big deal.” Another thought contributions less than $5 were OK.
Benavidez calls it human error.
“But really, I mean, it was a very ethical operation,” Benavidez said. “We recruited a lot of other community organizers, professors, former elected officials and they were all people that I have my full confidence in.”
He believes he will be exonerated.
On Wednesday, the Board of Ethics met for more than six hours, listening to testimony from both sides and, still, did not finish. Both sides will submit affidavits and a decision will be made on or after Sept. 11.
Should Benavidez’s campaign be found to have committed campaign finance fraud, Benavidez could be forced to give back the public funding he received. To date, Benavidez has used about $14,000 of the $38,000 he received.
Harper says public funding is the issue here – not whether Benavidez should be kicked off the ballot.
KRQE News 13 reached out to City Councilor and District 1 incumbent Ken Sanchez for comment on the matter. He said he’d prefer not to comment to preserve the integrity of the investigation, given that testimony did not conclude Wednesday.