Congressman has close ties to “independent” groups in New Mexico

Official portrait of Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. taken in front of American flag
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two organizations associated with a congressman from New Mexico illustrate just how closely intertwined congressional candidates and independent, politically-active organizations may be.

After a rocky start that included a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and a refund of its first big donation, a super PAC with family ties to a sitting member of Congress raised $70,000 and notched its first successful spending campaign in a municipal election. Goal WestPAC, one of two organization’s seeded just over a year ago by the campaign committee of Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., spent $25,000 on TV ads backing Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

In January 2013, Pearce’s campaign committee gave $10,000 each to GOAL Advocacy, a 501(c)4 nonprofit group, and Goal WestPAC, based in College Station, Texas.

Phillip Pearce, the congressman’s brother, is Goal WestPAC’s treasurer, while Andrea Goff, a fundraising consultant, is paid as a fundraising consultant by both the congressional campaign and the super PAC. Both organizations are run by the congressman’s former staffer and campaign manager, Jason Heffley, while the Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus described Goff as GOAL Advocacy’s finance director in a January story on the new organization.

Following publication, Todd Willens of People for Pearce wrote in an email to Sunlight, “[T]he Congressman has no role in this super Pac (sic). His campaign was asked to be a donor and asked for the donation to be returned, which it was. In no one way is the Congressman involved with this entity’s operations or decisions.”

Concerning the overlap of staff between the three organizations, Willens wrote: “Andrea Goff is a fundraiser consultant with a number of clients … Phillip Pearce is a CPA who among his business clients does election compliance work widely in Texas and New Mexico.”

Those interlocking relationships did not escape the notice of local Democrats, who cried foul. According to the New Mexico Capitol Report, Christy French, chairwoman of the Dona County Democrats, alleged illegal coordination between the congressman and the super PAC. Under federal election law, candidates and their campaign workers can’t direct the activities of a super PAC. But while they can’t ask it to spend money, or share strategies about the timing, strategy or placement of ads, the rules do allow some links between those running for office and outside groups, including sharing consultants, having former employees of a campaign work for a super PAC and even financial support from the campaign. (Super PACs cannot contribute to candidates.)

French complained to the FEC that the congressman retained improper control over Goal WestPAC last August. The super PAC refunded to Pearce’s campaign the $10,000 in September. The congressman’s spokesman maintained that nothing improper had taken place, and said that Pearce asked that the money be returned out of “an abundance of caution.”

Other than Pearce’s campaign, the only other donor to Goal WestPAC in the first half of 2013 was Me-Tex Oil Gas Inc. of Hobbs, N.M., which gave $5,000. Since then, however, other Pearce supporters — mostly from the oil and ranching industries — have opened their checkbooks for the super PAC. The organization’s year-end report shows it raised just over $70,000 in its first year. A little more than $47,000 came from a small group of donors, mostly from oil, agriculture and real estate companies with ties to New Mexico, who also recently gave to Pearce’s congressional campaign.

Those donors also serve on the board of directors of GOAL Advocacy, the 501(c)4 nonprofit organization that also got $10,000 from Pearce’s campaign. According to its website, GOAL Advocacy exists to “promote policies and common-sense solutions that create jobs and strengthen our economy and to educate Americans on the positive impacts the oil, gas, and agricultural industries have on our economy.” Thus far, the social welfare nonprofit has focused its resources on a push to stop the U.S. Fish and Wild Association from listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as an endangered species, which “would have a devastating impact on farmers, ranchers, and the oil, gas and renewable energy industries of New Mexico and Texas” according to a GOAL Advocacy press release.

“Some people use (c)4’s as political arms and this is not what this is about,” said Heffley, the former Pearce aide and GOAL Advocacy executive director, “This is strictly advocacy.” He affirmed that neither organization will be used to support Pearce’s congressional campaign: “I’ve formed a super PAC because it’s easier to spend on the local level … It’s easier to form a super PAC and work your way down.”

Goal WestPAC dove into municipal elections in September, spending about $25,000 on TV ads to help re-elect Republican Mayor Berry in Albuquerque. Berry crushed Democratic challenger Pete Dinelli 68 percent to 29 percent to win a second term in office. Heffley would not say where the group plans to spend next. He told Sunlight that the super PAC has a “working group” that ultimately decides how the PAC spends its funds, but “we’re not making that public at this point.”

Democratic operatives in the Land of Enchantment are also utilizing outside groups. Jon Lipshutz, a Democratic campaign consultant, founded the 501(c)4 New Mexico Prosperity in April of last year. An internal document leaked to the Santa Fe Reporter shows the group listed “taking back the Governorship” and “incumbent protection” among its goals. “New Mexico Prosperity will be structured as a 501(c)4 entity,” the document stated. “This allows us to accept unlimited contributions with limited reporting obligations. Once each election cycle formally begins, we will form a ‘Super PAC’ that will be used for electoral activities.”

They’ll have a lot of company.