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Council hopeful denies attempt to defraud city

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

An Albuquerque City Council candidate accused in an ethics complaint of using fraudulent tactics to obtain public campaign financing acknowledged that a small number of his representatives made “human errors” during the qualifying process, but denied any intentional effort to defraud the city, he said in a hearing this week.

Javier Benavidez said that he and his representatives acted in “good faith” to gather the required number of $5 donations from voters, which allowed him to qualify for about $38,000 in public campaign financing.

Investigators with the city’s Office of the Inspector General who interviewed 40 District 1 voters found that “some registered voters indicated that they did not contribute all or a portion of the required $5.” Investigators prepared the report at the direction of the city’s Board of Ethics.

Anger and accusations of criminal wrongdoing flew both ways during a six-hour city Board of Ethics hearing on Wednesday that included heated exchanges between witnesses and attorneys. Even audience members traded testy comments, prompting the board president to warn people not to interrupt the hearing.

Benavidez testified that private investigator Carlos McMahon, one of two people who filed the ethics complaint, went to Benavidez’s office in June and demanded a payment of $5,500 in exchange for McMahon dropping the complaint. McMahon, who recently changed his name from Carlos Villanueva, denied the accusation in his testimony.

Benavidez was required to collect $5 donations from at least 381 voters to qualify for public campaign funding. Benavidez collected 455 donations, of which the City Clerk’s Office accepted 399, qualifying him for $38,131 in city funds.

Benavidez will square off Oct. 3 against District 1 City Councilor Ken Sanchez and challengers Johnny Luevano Jr. and Sandra Mills.

Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers, who filed the ethics complaint in July on behalf of McMahon and write-in mayoral candidate Stella Padilla, accused Benavidez of fraud and perjury for allegedly falsifying forms submitted to the City Clerk’s Office.

“There’s no excuse for failure to collect the $5,” Rogers told board members. He alleged that Benavidez and his campaign workers paid all or part of the required $5 donation for some voters. “In exchange for their signature, some people were given money,” Rogers said.

Benavidez, a community activist and self-described “progressive champion,” has accused Rogers of targeting him for his political views. Rogers, who served as a Republican National Committeeman from 2008 to 2016, has denied targeting Benavidez for political reasons.

The Board of Ethics plans to meet in executive session on Sept. 11 to discuss the case, board President Andrew Schultz said. The board has only limited authority, Schultz said after the hearing. A $500 fine is the maximum penalty the board can order. It can also recommend that the City Council not seat a councilor, if he or she is elected. If the board believes it has found evidence of criminal behavior, it can recommend that a law enforcement agency investigate the allegations.

The board does not have the authority to order a candidate’s name removed from the ballot, Schultz said. Nor can it order a candidate to repay public campaign funds, he said.

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