Will 2016 be the year for ethics reform in New Mexico?

Gov. Susana Martinez has acknowledged that her top political adviser, Jay McCleskey, is being investigated by the FBI over questions about political fundraising, but will that factor into whether legislators consider ethics reform in the upcoming session? Courtesy photo

After investigating Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser Jay McCleskey for at least several months, a federal grand jury will not indict McCleskey, his lawyer said Friday.

“I’ve been informed the investigation has been terminated,” Paul Kennedy, McCleskey’s lawyer, said in a phone interview Friday. He declined to answer more questions.

A grand jury had been investigating the 41-year old campaign operative regarding expenditures from Republican Martinez’s campaign, as well as money from her 2011 inauguration committee that went to McCleskey.

Several sources — all Republicans — confirmed last year they had been interviewed by federal investigators. One prominent Republican said agents asked questions about different “fundraising vehicles,” such as political action committees, used by Martinez’s political wing, though it was unclear what potential violations federal agents were looking at.

Martinez said in November that she knew a federal investigation of McCleskey was ongoing but was confident he would be cleared.

On Friday, she said in a statement, “As I said, I was fully confident that Jay didn’t do anything wrong and that I trusted the system to look into baseless complaints and reject them. I’m disappointed that some political opponents felt the need to leak misleading information about this in an effort to smear Jay, but I’m glad for him and his family that it’s over.”

Martinez last year said that those who had complained about McCleskey were “people with axes to grind.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque said that Justice Department agencies, including her office and the FBI, do not comment on investigative matters as a matter of policy.

McCleskey has been praised by many Republicans in and beyond New Mexico for his political acumen. His critics, including many Republicans, have expressed disdain for what they call his “slash and burn” tactics. And some in the GOP have deplored his willingness to go after Republicans who have fallen out of favor with Martinez.

Martinez’s committee for her Jan. 1, 2011, inauguration voluntarily disclosed that it raised $960,000. The committee said released its list of contributors and the amounts they gave, though they were not required to do so. The committee spent about $860,000 on the inauguration and said at the time it gave the rest of the money to SAFE Houses, domestic violence shelters, across the state.

The committee did not provide any other information, including donor addresses or a list of individual expenditures. There are no state laws related to contributions to inauguration committees. During this year’s legislative session, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque introduced a bill that would have imposed more regulation on inauguration committees. However, the bill died without hearing. Martinez never cleared it for the legislative agenda, which is necessary for a bill to be considered in years when lawmakers have a 30-day session.

Also last year, a grand jury looked at Martinez’s activities when she was the district attorney in Las Cruces. In September, the grand jury subpoenaed a variety of payroll, expense and law enforcement records relating to Martinez and two employees who worked under her in 2010.

The subpoena also sought information on records checks made by Martinez and her two employees through state and federal criminal databases. They included the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a national law enforcement database used by police and prosecutors across the country.

A former Martinez campaign staffer has told reporters that Martinez, during the 2010 campaign, asked her to take pictures of vehicles with anti-Martinez bumper stickers and have one of her office staffers run the license plate numbers through the national database. Martinez has denied that claim and her office said in December that she was not a target of any investigation. It’s not clear whether the subpoena in September was part of the McCleskey investigation.

Also last year, federal investigators subpoenaed records from the state Taxation and Revenue Department looking into whether the agency performed retaliatory audits on former members of Martinez’s political team or state officials who ran afoul of her administration. This is according to a person familiar with the investigation. Three former administration officials and a former fundraiser for Martinez confirmed in separate interviews that they were audited by the state following public and acrimonious splits with the administration. Again, it isn’t clear whether that investigation is related to the McCleskey investigation.

McCleskey guided Martinez’s successful 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial races. On his company’s website is a quote from Martinez after the first campaign: “I could not have won this election without Jay as my political consultant.”

Since early 2011, New Mexico candidates and political action committees have paid more than $7.5 million in consulting fees and media buys to McCleskey and his associated companies, which include various shell companies, an analysis of state campaign finance records by The New Mexican showed. Most of that money went to buy advertising for the various campaigns that employed McCleskey. McCleskey also received another $110,000 last year from the Republican Governors Association, a group that Martinez now chairs.

Some of the shell companies used by McCleskey — using names like C.D. Productions and M3 Placement — have allowed some of his clients to file campaign finance reports without using McCleskey’s name.

In addition to Martinez’s campaigns, McCleskey also ran Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s 2009 and 2013 races. Other McCleskey clients have included Lt. Gov. John Sanchez when he ran for governor in 2002 and Court of Appeals Judge J. Miles Hanisee.

McCleskey also worked on the 2014 campaign of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who resigned last year before she pleaded guilty two felonies and four misdemeanor counts related to illegally using her campaign funds to try to cover her gambling debts.

Steve Terrell can be reached at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at tinyurl.com/roundhouseroundup.