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Santolina owner says it may sue state over probe Keller initiated

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Arizona developer that helped fund attack ads against State Auditor Tim Keller is alleging in a tort claims notice that Keller is “unconstitutionally” using his position to punish and silence it, an allegation that the Office of the State Auditor denies.

It’s the latest in a series of claims that Albuquerque’s two remaining mayoral candidates have faced in recent weeks. Keller, a Democrat, and Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis, a Republican, are going head to head in a runoff on Nov. 14.

Pat Rogers, the attorney representing Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, filed the notice on Friday. A tort claim puts the state on notice that a lawsuit may be forthcoming.

“Mr. Keller’s misuse of the auditor’s office and the selection of WALH for special treatment out of 600,000 possible investigations, after WALH criticizes Mr. Keller speaks for itself,” Rogers said in a news release. “Whether people support the Santolina development or not, no one should be subject to punishment and damages for the exercise of their First Amendment rights to criticize any politician, including Mr. Keller.”

The auditor’s office says it is handling the complaint it received on the Santolina development the same way it handles other complaints.

“Our office will continue to hold government accountable, regardless of political attacks, and we’re not going to stop doing our job because some Arizona developer thinks they’re above the law,” auditor spokeswoman Aaron Nieto said. “New Mexicans deserve to know if there were illegal giveaways to a private company, and that’s exactly what the independent firm conducting the audit will determine.”

Santolina is a planned 21-square mile development southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street that could some day be home to 90,000 people. WALH opposes Keller in the mayoral race and contributed $30,000 to a political action committee that ran TV and radio attack ads against Keller.

On Sept. 15 — the same week the ads began running — Keller’s office sent a letter questioning whether the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority is illegally subsidizing the water infrastructure for Santolina. The letter instructs REDW, the authority’s independent auditor, to look into those allegations, which were made by Norman Gaume, a former water system manager/engineer for the city of Albuquerque, and others.

The auditor’s office also took aim at County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who sits on the water authority board and first questioned whether Keller was using his authority to retaliate against Santolina.

“It is (a) sad example of sour grapes when Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who happens to be a former mayoral candidate, believes it is acceptable to break state law and compromise the integrity of the routine audit process by leaking confidential information for political fodder,” Nieto said.

“Last time I checked it was not confidential,” Johnson responded. “So the allegation that I somehow broke the law is absolutely spurious and false.”

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