The city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board on Thursday dismissed Mayor Alan Webber’s complaint that accused a Spanish fraternal organization and two veterans groups of unlawful political advocacy on behalf of his opponent.
Board members went into executive session to discuss the allegations and then voted 4-0 against the complaint. Board member Kristina Martinez abstained because she works in the law firm representing Webber.
Webber’s campaign claimed Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, Veterans of Foreign Wars 2951 and American Legion Post 1 acted as political committees for his rival JoAnne Vigil Coppler but failed to register as such, enabling them to not disclose funding sources and other information.
Those actions violated the city’s codes and turned these organizations into covert influence peddlers, according to the complaint. But Union Protectíva’s attorney Scott Fuqua argued that the group’s primary purpose is not politics and, therefore, it can’t be a political committee, so none of the alleged infractions apply.
“Those provisions are off the table,” Fuqua said.
His arguments swayed board members.
“Their principal purpose … is not to function as political action committees,” board member Paul Biderman said. “They don’t meet the definition of a political action committee.”
In a statement, Union Protectíva President Virgil Vigil celebrated the ruling.
“I am pleased to see justice and the rule of law prevail today,” Vigil said, “especially since so many of us veterans unjustly targeted by Mayor Webber served our country to preserve those American ideals and freedoms.”
At the same time, Webber’s camp expressed disappointment.
“We respect the board’s decision but respectfully disagree,” Sascha Guinn Anderson, Webber’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “All entities that engage in negative campaigning should disclose their donors so there is transparency to the voters.”
Attorney Jeff Herrera, representing Webber’s campaign, contended the groups’ messages bashing the mayor made clear they opposed him as a candidate.
“The issue before the board today is straightforward,” Herrera said. “Whether Santa Fe voters have the right to know who is trying to influence the campaigns to elect the officials that govern this city.”
The messaging further met the definition of political action because it was done within 60 days of the election, Herrera said, arguing that signs disparaging the mayor are still posted in yards.
The groups’ political motives required them to register with the City Clerk’s Office before distributing materials and posting messages, Herrera said.
Herrera was referring to a widely circulated social media and newspaper ad that mocks CHART, a city-led effort to address art and monuments that many Indigenous residents say glorify Spanish conquest.
The words making up the acronym were changed from Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth to “Cancelling Hispanic Arts Religious Traditions.”
VFW Post 2951 and American Legion Post 1 are listed as sponsors of the ad, which also has appeared on yard signs.
The complaint also cited an ad that Union Protectíva placed in the Santa Fe Reporter, calling Webber a Marxist who’s trying to divide Santa Fe.
But Fuqua countered that spending $250 on an advertisement doesn’t make a group a political organization. It’s simply exercising its constitutional right to criticize an elected leader, he said.
Attorney Gregory Ross, representing VFW, said the group’s members were merely expressing their outrage at the mayor paving the way for vandals to tear down the obelisk, a memorial to veterans.
The language in the CHART posters is free speech and doesn’t tell anyone who to vote for, Ross said, calling the ethics complaint an attempt to harass those who say things the mayor dislikes.
Ross said he had nothing against Webber personally and has worked with him on projects that benefited everyone involved.
“It’s very unfortunate that the mayor felt [it] necessary to make false allegations against the VFW,” Ross said.
This ethics complaint was one of three filed in an increasingly combative mayoral race.
In one complaint, Republican candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson claimed that an email Webber sent touting his “hose down” with the Santa Fe Fire Department was using an event paid for by tax dollars to promote his campaign.
The ethics board dismissed her complaint in August, saying she had failed to show an ethics violation. On Wednesday, Union Protectíva filed a complaint that accused the mayor of bullying and general abuse of power.
The group’s leaders insist the action is not to retaliate against the mayor for his now-dismissed complaint against them.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story included an incorrect name of the attorney representing Mayor Alan Webber's campaign. The attorney's name is Jeff Herrera.