SANTA FE – Defamation lawsuits – like public apologies – are rare in New Mexico politics.
But a 2017 attack ad targeting State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has resulted in both.
Dunn moved last week to drop his defamation lawsuit against Garrett VeneKlasen, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the office, after VeneKlasen signed a statement of apology.
The lawsuit centered on a radio ad in which VeneKlasen accused Dunn, then a Republican, of negotiating a billion-dollar power line through his personal ranch – a transaction “that’ll lead to a lot of money flowing his way,” VeneKlasen said in the radio ad.
But Dunn said the ad was false, and he filed a defamation lawsuit last year – a rare step in New Mexico politics.
After 18 months of court hearings and legal arguments, Dunn and VeneKlasen settled the lawsuit last month, and it was dismissed Friday.
Dunn’s attorney, his son Blair Dunn, said Tuesday that the terms of the agreement are confidential, except for a statement issued by VeneKlasen.
In the statement, VeneKlasen said he didn’t intend to say or suggest that Dunn was corrupt or to allege that he had negotiated the route of the transmission line.
“I apologize to Commissioner Dunn for the trouble this has caused him and his family,” VeneKlasen said in the written statement, released by Blair Dunn.
The Dunns are still pursuing an apology from Alan Packman, who worked for VeneKlasen in the campaign.
Aubrey Dunn’s term as land commissioner ends Dec. 31. He didn’t seek re-election.
Dunn won election four years ago as a Republican but later changed his party affiliation to Libertarian.
VeneKlasen lost a close primary race to Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, who went on to win the office in the fall. She will be the first woman to serve as New Mexico land commissioner.
The law generally protects people’s rights to speak out against public figures, attorneys say, even if they don’t get their facts right.
To win his defamation suit, Dunn would have been required to demonstrate that VeneKlasen acted with “malice” – that he either knew the ad was false and aired it anyway, or that he acted with reckless disregard for whether it was false.