A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Dishonesty’ in New Mexico

A GOP candidate ad is denounced by the party's own chairman. We agree, but find the opposing candidate guilty too.


Summary

We can’t recall a time when a candidate’s ad was denounced as misleading and dishonest by the head of his own party. But that’s what has happened in New Mexico.

Harvey E. Yates Jr., New Mexico’s Republican state party chairman, stepped in to referee a dispute between the gubernatorial campaigns of Allen Weh and Susana Martinez. Each GOP candidate ran a TV ad that the other labeled false.

Yates issued a statement on May 23 condemning an ad by Weh that claimed Martinez "failed to pay taxes" and spent taxpayer money on "extravagant dinners, luxury hotels, dinner at Hooters, even iPods." Yates called the ad "misleading" and an example of "dishonesty in campaigning" that should not be tolerated.

All this got our attention, so we conducted our own review. Our conclusion: Yates is right. The Weh ad is indeed a gross distortion of the truth.

Yates also reviewed a Martinez ad that attacked Weh for supporting an "amnesty plan for 13 million illegal immigrants." That ad, Yates said, was “reasonably supported.” We disagree. It’s true that Weh supported the same approach that was backed by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee for president, in an immigration bill in 2006. And many Republicans still characterize that bill as providing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. But as we have long pointed out, “amnesty” is an emotion-laden word that does not accurately describe what the bill would have provided, or what Weh was supporting.

Analysis

With the June 1 Republican primary approaching, Weh aired a TV ad called "Why?" that makes numerous misleading claims about Martinez.

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Allen Weh for Governor TV ad: "Why?"

Announcer: Why is Susana Martinez attacking? Because that’s what career politicians do. Martinez says she’d fight corruption. But auditors caught her red-handed. Martinez failed to pay taxes. Look how Martinez spends our tax dollars. Extravagant dinners, luxury hotels, dinner at Hooters, even iPods. Wasting money. Breaking the rules. Career politician Susana Martinez. A false campaign, unpaid taxes, bad judgment.

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Taxing Credulity

The ad’s most damning allegation is this one: "Martinez says she’d fight corruption. But auditors caught her red-handed. Martinez failed to pay taxes." The ad, which first aired May 19, shows Martinez’s out-stretched hand turning bright red to underscore that she was "caught … red-handed," like a common criminal. The narrator implies that Martinez, a district attorney, dodged payment of her personal taxes. But here’s what happened: Martinez’s office hired 24 people to destroy files of closed cases. The workers were hired on an hourly basis as independent contractors, and thus Martinez’s office didn’t submit payroll taxes, such as Social Security, for them. A 2008 audit, though, found that the office should have paid the taxes. It said:

2008 audit: If an employee is classified as an independent contractor and there is no reasonable basis for doing so, there is a liability for employment taxes for that worker in accordance with the Internal Revenue Code Section 3509. …

They should have been considered employees. The District Attorney should place these individuals on the payroll as employees and pay the required employment tax. An alternative would be to lease these individuals from an employee leasing firm.

Martinez opted for the second option, making the leasing firm responsible for the payroll taxes.

Hooters, Hotels and iPods

In these two sentences, Weh takes four shots at Martinez: "Look how Martinez spends our tax dollars. Extravagant dinners, luxury hotels, dinner at Hooters, even iPods." But he cleanly connects only once, and it’s a glancing blow, at best. It’s true that a staffer in Martinez’s office went to Hooters of Bayside in Miami for dinner. A female "prosecutor who was attending a seminar," according to the Martinez campaign, billed taxpayers $17.86 for a plate of wings, a side of sauce and an iced tea. That’s not much money, but the idea of a public employee spending tax dollars at a restaurant that flaunts its busty female waitresses may strike some voters as imprudent. It is, however, an allowable expense, says Martinez consultant Danny Diaz. "It is a legit establishment," he says. "The rules are the rules. You are either within the rules or outside of them."

As for the other claims, there is no evidence that Martinez spent money on "luxury hotels," scant evidence that she bought "extravagant dinners" and questionable evidence that she misspent on iPods.

The Weh campaign provided receipts that showed one employee in the district attorney’s office spent three nights at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. The hotel looks pretty nice. We couldn’t get quotes on regular room rates because the facility is currently closed due to flood damage. But the bill — which totaled $549.36 for the three nights — shows the employee paid the government rate of $117 per night. That doesn’t sound like an amount that taxpayers would get too worked up about.

And those "extravagant dinners"? Martinez and four staffers dined at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Phoenix, Ariz., one night more than two years ago. Martinez spent the least — $41.95 — for a ribeye steak dinner. It’s a pricey restaurant, no doubt about it. But the Martinez campaign points out that the state limits reimbursement for food during out-of-state trips to $45, so the five staffers cost the state a combined $225 for the day. And there’s no evidence that there is any pattern of such dinner expeditions.

The last charge — the one about iPods — is questionable. The records provided by the Weh campaign show that the district attorney’s office purchased three iPod Nanos (two black, one silver) for $199 each, including one that is labeled “SUSANA-IPOD." The Martinez campaign does not dispute the purchases. The iPods were "approved by the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration" and they are "used for listening to witness and defendant statements and jail phone calls," according to a Martinez campaign statement. We’ll let you decide whether having an mp3 player is a good law enforcement tool, but there is no evidence that the iPods are being used for anything other than legitimate job-related purposes.

Copies of the receipts for the iPods, the Gaylord Opryland, Hooters and other expenses can be found here.

On balance, the Weh ad is grossly misleading.

Over the Border of Truthfulness

Not for the first time, and we’ll bet very good money not for the last, the immigration issue has come into play in this race.

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Susana Martinez for Governor TV Ad: "Big Issues, Big Differences"

Narrator: Big issues. Big differences. Allen Weh, divisive party chairman, pushed amnesty for illegal aliens. Weh wrote that he supported the amnesty plan for 13 million illegal immigrants, argued illegal immigrants are crucial to our economy, called the pitch for the amnesty plan right on target. Politician Allen Weh, wrong on amnesty. Susana Martinez. A real record on border security, she opposes taxpayer giveaways, and no driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. To secure our borders, Susana Martinez for Governor.

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We’ve noted previously that "amnesty" is a term freighted with meaning for many in the Republican Party, and it’s often not the meaning found in the dictionary. Critics such as Martinez who favor a hard line on immigration policy use the word as derisive shorthand to describe the "path to citizenship" supported at one time by GOP President George W. Bush, and more recently by his Democratic successor. That approach would allow those here in the U.S. illegally to eventually become citizens if they were willing to pay penalties for breaking immigration laws, plus any back taxes due, provided they hadn’t broken other laws.

Actual amnesty, however, would give illegal immigrants a blanket pardon for their violations of immigration law, a position that’s mighty hard to find in the political world these days. It’s certainly not the one held by Allen Weh.

Here’s what Weh wrote in a 2007 opinion piece:

Weh, Oct. 3, 2007: As [Bush] does, I also favor a controlled guest worker program, and further favor finding a compassionate and equitable solution for the approximately 13 million illegal immigrants who have been working in this country for more than two years without committing any criminal acts.

We all should recognize that a lot of hard jobs in construction, agriculture and the oil industry are being done by many of these people that are crucial to our economy. Thus any knee-jerk reaction to resolve this issue without taking this into consideration is simply not in our collective best interests.

Weh did write, as Martinez notes in her ad, that illegal immigrants are "crucial to our economy." And most economists agree. As we recently wrote, economists conclude that immigrants, legal and illegal, actually expand the economy and don’t take jobs from American workers.

Martinez is off on one last point: The most credible estimates of the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. put it at least 1 million below the 13 million cited in the ad. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s latest tally, the figure was about 10.8 million in January 2009, down from 11.6 million the year before in part because of the economy’s decline. A 2008 report by the Pew Hispanic Center used Census data to estimate that about 11.9 million illegal immigrants resided within U.S. borders.

We couldn’t agree more with Harvey Yates, the New Mexico Republican Party chairman, that "[d]ishonesty in political advertising should not be tolerated in either party." But we part company with him when he says that just "one of the Republican gubernatorial candidates has issued ads which are so misleading," giving Martinez a free pass. Martinez has been touting Yates’ letter in a new ad.

We think there’s plenty of evidence to find guilt on both sides.

— by Eugene Kiely and Viveca Novak

Sources

Diaz, Danny, consultant, Susana Martinez for Governor. Interview with FactCheck.org. 25 May 2010.

Sanchez, Christopher, spokesman, Allen Weh for Governor. E-mail to FactCheck.org. 25 May 2010.

"Press Release by the Chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico." Harvey Yates, Jr. 23 May 2010.

Marcus, Fairall, Bristol + Co., L.L.P. "State of New Mexico Third Judicial District Attorney Annual Financial Report for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2008."

Passel, Jeffrey and D’Vera Cohn. "A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States." Pew Hispanic Center. 14 April 2009.

Hoefer, Michael, Nancy Rytina and Brian C. Baker. "Population Estimates: Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States, January 2009." U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. January 2010.

Weh, Allen. "Deport Criminal Illegals." Albuquerque Journal. 3 Oct 2007.

Causey, Janel, spokeswoman, Republican Party of New Mexico. E-mail to FactCheck.org. 26 May 2010.