The three Republican members of the Federal Election Commission blocked a proposal this summer that could have led to sanctions against an El Paso-based political action committee that failed to inform the public of who was funding its efforts during the 2018 Democratic congressional primary, records show.

“Given that this case involved a very significant reporting failure — the PAC failed to report $207,000 in receipts, $207,000 in disbursements, and nearly $200,000 in independent expenditures — and substantial obstruction of the FEC investigation by the PAC’s officers, this is a frustrating but not entirely surprising outcome,” said Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

Keep El Paso Honest, a so-called super PAC started by El Paso political consultant Carlos Sierra, spent more than $200,000 attacking Veronica Escobar during the 2018 Democratic primary. The organization didn’t file numerous required reports disclosing its funding and expenditures during the campaign, drawing several complaints to the FEC.

After Sierra and Keep El Paso Honest ignored FEC attempts to gain access to committee records for more than three years, the organization finally filed its report in December 2021 and amended it in January 2022. The reports showed that the super PAC was entirely funded by the family of Dori Fenenbock, one of Escobar’s challengers in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary, which Escobar won handily.

Veronica Escobar

“In a time when fair elections and democracy are under attack across the nation, it is more imperative than ever for the FEC to do its job,” said Lauren Zimmerman, Escobar’s campaign manager. “While we are glad this illegal scheme was exposed, the FEC’s failure to hold unethical actors accountable for brazen violations of campaign law is dangerous.”

Four complaints, including from Escobar and Campaign Legal Center, were filed with the FEC in 2018, alleging that Keep El Paso Honest had ignored legal requirements to disclose receipts and expenditures.

The FEC voted 4-0 in September 2019 to issue subpoenas after the agency’s general counsel found reasonable cause to believe Keep El Paso Honest and its treasurer, Lindsey Workman of Dublin, Ohio, violated federal campaign finance law.

“Despite acknowledging receipt of the Subpoenas and Orders, neither the Committee or Sierra complied, despite numerous phone calls, letters, and emails from this Office reminding them of their duty to comply with the subpoenas and produce the requested documents,” the FEC general counsel’s office wrote in a July 28, 2022, report to the commission.

The logo for the super PAC called Keep El Paso Honest.

In interviews with investigators, Workman said Sierra recruited her to be treasurer of Keep El Paso Honest, but that “she had no prior treasurer experience or experience with FEC reporting, that she was not involved in any decisions about Committee solicitations or disbursements, and that although she was signatory on the Committee’s bank account, she ‘never wrote checks or signed for anything,” according to the general counsel report.

Sierra and Workman finally began cooperating with the FEC in summer 2021, the report said. They provided invoices and bank records and eventually filed a report in December 2021 and amended it a month later.

The records show that Workman was paid $2,566.16 in salary between Jan. 4 and March 1 by Keep El Paso Honest. They also show a $586.94 purchase at a grocery store in Workman’s Ohio hometown. The purpose of the expenditure is listed as “food for fundraiser,” though there are no other fundraising expenses listed and all four of the committee’s donors listed El Paso addresses.

The bulk of the money — $185,500 — went to Sierra’s company, Renegade Public Affairs. The reports to the FEC said the money was used to pay for advertising.

In the FEC general counsel report, which was made public Oct. 6, recommended that the commission approve a proposed conciliation agreement with Keep El Paso Honest.

The terms of the conciliation agreement are confidential, “but most likely contained at least some civil penalty for the PAC,” Ghosh of the Campaign Legal Center said.

But on Aug. 30, the FEC deadlocked 3-3 on proceeding with the conciliation agreement.

The commission’s three Republican members – Allen Dickerson, Sean Cooksey and James Trainor – voted to close the case without further action. The three Democrats – Dara Lindenbaum, Shana Broussard and Ellen Weintraub – voted against the motion, meaning they wanted to approve the conciliation agreement.

Because of the 3-3 deadlock, the FEC cannot pursue further action against Keep El Paso Honest. The commission then voted 6-0 to close the case.

Saurav Ghosh

Ghosh said partisan splits on campaign enforcement have become commonplace at the FEC, with Democrats generally favoring enforcement actions and Republicans opposing those efforts.

“I think in general, the failure to enforce campaign finance law (in the Keep El Paso Honest cse) fits into a longstanding pattern of gridlock and dysfunction at the FEC,” he said.

Workman and Sierra did not respond to requests for comment. Both continue to work in politics.

Workman is an organizer for Rank the Vote, which promotes ranked-choice voting, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Sierra operates Renegade Public Affairs in El Paso. Its website says clients have included County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, Mayor Oscar Leeser and Irene Armendariz-Jackson, the Republican challenger to Escobar in 2020 and this year.

He also was part of a group that delivered petitions in September to block University Medical Center from proceeding with a plan to issue $346 million in debt without voter approval.

Ghosh said the FEC’s failure to take enforcement action against a political committee that defied disclosure requirements and continued to resist compliance efforts sets a potentially dangerous precedent.

“I think this kind of egregious reporting failure, coupled with no real consequences for the PAC, sends a terrible message to others who might be considering similar conduct in future elections,” he said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.