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Land commissioner campaign ad trial set

SANTA FE – A clash over the accuracy of a campaign advertisement targeting State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn is headed to trial, attorneys in the case say.

State District Judge Matthew Reynolds this week refused to order Democrat Garrett VeneKlasen to stop airing or publishing the ad, which Dunn contends is false.

But the underlying complaint – a defamation suit, seeking damages from VeneKlasen – will move forward, and Dunn has asked for a jury trial.

Dunn’s son, Blair, is representing him in the case. The younger Dunn said he knew it would be difficult to win a court order halting publication but that the underlying case is a strong one.

Aubrey Dunn

A jury could hear the case early next year.

“We agree with the judge,” Blair Dunn said. “When it comes to First Amendment cases, we entirely understand the bar is extremely high for an injunction.”

Attorney Karen Mendenhall, who represents VeneKlasen, said the land commissioner had a chance to present his case during an all-day hearing in Torrance County on Tuesday and fell short.

“Mr. VeneKlasen’s ads were accurate,” Mendenhall said. “They were not defamatory, and every statement in the ad was supported by publicly available documents.”

The dispute centers on an audio advertisement VeneKlasen released earlier this year to announce his campaign. The ad accused Dunn of negotiating a deal to run a power line through his personal ranch, to great financial benefit.

Blair Dunn said there’s no evidence of that.

“The commissioner had no say in where the line was running,” Blair Dunn said.

Garrett VeneKlasen

In any case, it doesn’t look like Dunn and VeneKlasen will face off during election season.

Dunn, a Republican, isn’t seeking re-election. Instead, he’s campaigning to succeed U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce in the 2nd Congressional District.

VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, is seeking the Democratic nomination for land commissioner, facing off against state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup and former Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

On the Republican side, Pat Lyons – a member of the Public Regulation Commission and a former land commissioner – is running.