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Lawsuit centered on 2016 House race

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Against a backdrop of political mudslinging this election season, a quiet legal battle is being waged over two campaign mailers from 2016 that warned about a Republican legislative candidate, citing allegations of torture, threats of castration and child abuse at his ranch for troubled youths.

The negative mailers targeted southwestern New Mexico rancher Scott Chandler, who contends he was the victim of a reckless and untruthful campaign by Republican political consultant Jay McCleskey to harm his reputation and his chances for election in June 2016. He lost the Republican primary by 16 votes.

Chandler, now running again for the same House seat, has received legal settlements approaching $1 million with the state related chiefly to a New Mexico State Police investigation of his Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program in 2013 that resulted in no criminal charges being filed.

McCleskey is the prominent GOP consultant who helped Gov. Susana Martinez twice win the governor’s race and served as an adviser during her administration. He is currently working on the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Mark Ronchetti.

The defamation lawsuit alleges that Martinez, upon the advice of McCleskey, had a “high profile involvement” with the execution of a State Police search of Chandler’s Tierra Blanca ranch in October 2013.

The raid and the subsequent Amber Alert for youths enrolled at the ranch “were for theater and show using needless overwhelming resources for political and media gain by the Executive Branch,” the lawsuit says.

The investigation was prompted by a “disgruntled parent” whose son was staying at the ranch, which catered to “families whose teenagers have become unmanageable and uncontrollable,” Chandler says in court records.

Chandler, who is represented by attorney Peter V. Domenici Jr., says in the defamation lawsuit that the State Police inquiry “went nowhere.” The youth program ceased operating in 2016.

Chandler’s lawsuit contends that just before the primary election for the District 32 House seat on June 7, 2016, McCleskey and his Advance New Mexico Now PAC circulated two “untruthful” mailers about Chandler and the youth program. The mailers went to residents in Luna, Hidalgo and Grant counties.

One of the mailers asked, “How did a business accused of child abuse and torture AVOID government oversight?” The question is framed against images of a patrol car light in the background and intersecting pieces of tape stating “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.”

Chandler said in a recent interview that he hopes to set “a precedent that this isn’t the way you do political races. Our politics has unfortunately fallen to unknown levels, and we’re trying to shore that up.”

His lawsuit asks for monetary damages and seeks “declaratory relief” from the court against McCleskey finding that the “statements disparaging his character are false.”

McCleskey and his attorneys dispute the defamation claims, note that Chandler is a public figure and argue the importance of protecting free speech in the context of a political campaign.

The mailers, McCleskey’s attorneys argue, repeated or explained what former residents of the ranch alleged in lawsuits and police reports.

“It’s offensive that a politician running for public office believes opponents do not have a First Amendment right to share with voters information that was documented in police reports and widely covered by local and national news media, including the ‘Today’ show,” McCleskey told the Journal last week.

Prior legal battles

This isn’t the first legal battle to arise related to the youth program at Chandler’s ranch, in the Black Range of southwestern New Mexico.

Chandler, according to a state Risk Management record, received $750,000 last year to settle lawsuits for “deprivation of constitutional rights resulting from a law enforcement investigation commencing on or about September 20, 2013, at the Tierra Blanca Ranch, and subsequent or prior acts or failure to act” by State Police as well as alleged violations of the state public records law in 2014 and 2017.

Chandler sued again after a 2014 incident in which he and his supporters were removed by Martinez’s security detail from a Republican event at a Deming motel. He said he attended simply to present the governor with a signed petition. In 2018, before Martinez left office, he collected $80,000 to settle that case.

Chandler said that for legal reasons, he couldn’t discuss the resolution of other lawsuits in which he was sued by former youths from the ranch program.

He has a pending lawsuit against the state Children, Youth and Families Department involving records related to its investigation of such complaints.

Defamation suit

This year, Chandler was unopposed in the Republican primary election.

In the Nov. 3 general election, he faces the incumbent, Deming Democrat Candie Sweetser, for the House District 32 seat.

He said there have been no mailers circulating in this election season that mention the controversy over the youth program.

Meanwhile, his defamation lawsuit is now at the state Court of Appeals after state District Judge Jennifer E. DeLaney refused to grant McCleskey’s motion dismiss the case and McCleskey appealed her ruling.

Represented by former state Supreme Court Justice Paul Kennedy in the defamation lawsuit, McCleskey told the Journal that freedom of speech, particularly when applied to campaigns for political office, is vital, just as an individual’s fitness for public office is a matter of public interest.

DeLaney, the judge assigned the case, is a Democrat from Deming whom Martinez refused to appoint after a judicial selection committee in 2012 recommended her for the post.

Martinez asked for more candidates. And after the selection committee added two Republicans, Martinez chose Republican Jarod Hofacket.

Months later, DeLaney ran for the judicial post and defeated Hofacket in the general election.

On another legal front, McCleskey in August filed a lawsuit against his insurance company for failing to foot his legal bills in defending Chandler’s lawsuit.

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