A newly elected Santa Fe city councilor who received $15,000 in public financing spent part of the money to buy gift cards for her volunteers, generating criticism on social media and raising questions about the use of public campaign funds.
Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez, who won the three-way race for the open council District 4 seat in the Nov. 5 municipal election, purchased $220 in gift cards from a local coffee shop to hand out to her volunteers before writing the city a check for $3.93 for the remaining public finance dollars she didn’t spend, according to the last and final batch of campaign finance reports.
The eyebrow-raising purchase of gift cards with taxpayer money comes after incumbent City Councilor Renee Villarreal disclosed in campaign finance reports filed before the election that she had spent $501 — or a third of the $1,500 she received from the city in public campaign financing — to throw a victory night celebration. Villarreal, who ran unopposed, was the subject of public criticism for her spending of public funds.
City Council candidates in contested races are eligible to receive $15,000 in public financing, plus matching funds under a provision that allows would-be officeholders to bolster their public disbursements with a limited amount of private contributions matched by the city. Council candidates in uncontested races, such as Villarreal, qualify to receive only $1,500.
Incumbent District 3 City Councilor Chris Rivera, who also ran unopposed, has said he couldn’t justify taking public financing if he didn’t have an opponent. Rivera raised $700 in private contributions and spent only $51. He donated the remaining $649 to Life Link, an organization that helps homeless people and others.
Cassutt-Sanchez said she didn’t hesitate to buy the gift cards with taxpayer money.
“I wanted to recognize individuals who had really contributed, that had given up their time to help me out and to really go out and talk to the community — and not just help me out in terms of talking to the community about me but also going out and reaching out to the community and figuring out what some of the big issues were,” Cassutt-Sanchez said Monday.
“So it’s more than just that they were promoting me, but really, they also helped me get a better understanding of what are some of the issues that our voters are facing, what are the things that they are hoping to get out of a city councilor,” she added.
Cassutt-Sanchez said she’s open to having a conversation with people who don’t agree the expenditure was an appropriate use of public financing.
“We can talk about what we can and can’t use campaign finance funds for, but I think that we want to encourage people to use public financing in terms of making sure that we are having fair elections where money is not playing an excessive role,” she said. “We see this on the national stage — how much somebody who has funds and has access to rich individuals can buy elections or can really have more influence in elections than they may otherwise have, as opposed to publicly financed campaigns.”
Asked whether the purchase of gift cards for volunteers was allowable under the public financing program, city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said the City Attorney’s Office has not had time to review the campaign finance reports.
“Publicly financed candidates and the use of payments from the fund must be used exclusively to pay expenses incurred in furtherance of the current campaign,” Chacon wrote in an email late Monday.
The city code imposes a number of restrictions on the use of public campaign finance funds. For example, the code states that “payments received from the fund shall not be used for any other purpose, including … any gift or transfer for which compensating value is not received.”
Cassutt-Sanchez said she purchased 22 gift cards at $10 apiece. “It’s one per volunteer and they actually haven’t gone out yet,” she said. “I’m still in the process of delivering them.”
Cassutt-Sanchez emphasized she bought the gift cards from Java Joe’s because she wanted to support a local business.
“I didn’t go to some national chain,” she said. “I went to a local business within my district.”
Cassutt-Sanchez noted she raised more than $900 in individual $5 contributions to qualify for public financing — money that went into the city’s coffers.
“I collected more $5 donations to qualify for public financing than any other candidate,” she said. “I think we had to collect $750 and I collected $900 and something dollars.”
In Cassutt-Sanchez’s view, the additional qualifying contributions she collected and gave to the city would cover the cost of the gift cards.
“I believe it would actually cancel it out or come close to,” she said.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.