No public financing for sheriff’s mayoral bid

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque city clerk has declined Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ application to get public financing for his mayoral campaign, citing questions about potential misconduct in the qualifying process.

In a letter to Gonzales dated Friday, Clerk Ethan Watson said he could not confirm that Gonzales had complied with the city’s Open and Ethical Election Code and associated regulations, noting a pair of ethics complaints Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign filed against Gonzales last month.

“The Office of the City Clerk has not reached this decision based on the mere fact that complaints were filed,” Watson wrote. “The decision instead is based on the conclusion that the evidence submitted to date prevents the Office from certifying that you are entitled to receive $661,309.25 from the Open and Ethical Elections Fund. The Office of the City Clerk cannot provide that certification on the record as it stands today because of the obligation all officials have to safeguard public funds.”

Gonzales’ campaign, meanwhile, alleges that Watson was “coerced” by Keller and says it is now considering its legal options.

“For Tim Keller’s handpicked city clerk to deny our campaign public financing after citizens submitted more than enough qualifying contributions demonstrates a stunning level of arrogance and contempt for the voters of Albuquerque,” the campaign said in a statement to the Journal on Friday.

Watson declined to comment on those allegations.

Per Albuquerque’s charter, the mayor appoints the city clerk, but it is one of the few leadership positions that require City Council approval. The council unanimously confirmed Watson in 2020.

Gonzales has three days to appeal Watson’s decision. That would trigger a hearing before the city hearing officer during which Gonzales “has the burden of providing evidence to demonstrate the Clerk’s decision was improper,” according to Watson’s letter.

A Gonzales representative did not say if it would pursue the appeal process as outlined, saying lawyers were considering all options and “we will be putting out additional details about our legal strategy in the near future.”

Should Watson’s decision hold up, Gonzales could still shift to running a privately financed campaign.

Qualifying for public financing

To qualify for public financing – and the $660,000-plus pot – mayoral candidates must prove they have sufficient community support by collecting $5 contributions from 1% of city voters – 3,779 people.

Both Gonzales and Keller appeared to have met that threshold based on numbers posted on the clerk’s website. Each had over 4,100 contributions verified, and hundreds more that were rejected (591 for Gonzales and 338 for Keller), according to the clerk’s website.

Watson has certified Keller for public financing, the mayor’s campaign confirmed.

But Watson’s letter to Gonzales references the recent ethics complaints in explaining “concerns that prevent certification.”

The first complaint includes a written statement from a voter who said Gonzales told him that he did not have to submit a $5 contribution and that the Gonzales campaign would pay for it.

Gonzales’ campaign has denied it, but Watson’s letter indicates that the clerk has “deemed the contribution … fraudulent and referred it to the City Attorney for investigation pursuant to our rules and regulations.”

The second ethics complaint alleges Gonzales’ campaign forged voter signatures on qualifying documentation, citing disparities between signatures on $5 contribution receipts and the same voters’ signatures from other places, including on the petition to get Gonzales’ name on the Nov. 2 ballot.

To support the complaint – originally filed June 29 – the Keller campaign said it this week submitted to the clerk 149 examples of alleged forgeries.

It also filed signed statements from about 40 people contacted by a private investigator Keller’s campaign had hired to research the matter. Most said the signature on Gonzales’ nominating petition was theirs and about half confirmed they had contributed $5 to Gonzales’ public financing effort. But nearly all said signatures on $5 receipts submitted in their name were not legitimate, according to the documents provided by the Keller campaign.

“Looks like someone is pretending to be me,” one voter said in a text message exchange with the investigator, saying she had never signed anything related to Gonzales’ campaign.

“The … signature was obviously made by a left-handed person and I am distinctly right-handed,” another wrote in a signed statement.

In one case, someone wrote that a receipt allegedly signed by her 94-year-old mother on June 1, 2021, could not have been, as she’d suffered a major heart attack about a week before.

“I stayed with my mother all day and all night on June 1. The only visitors we had on June 1, 2021, were the home health evaluating nurse, a home health aide, and aides delivering meals. At no point on June 1, 2021, did my mother sign any documents for the Gonzales campaign,” she wrote in a statement.

The Gonzales campaign did not comment directly on the latest supporting documentation in the forgery complaint, writing “we will have more soon once our lawyers review everything.”

But when the forgery complaint was initially filed, a Gonzales representative said it appeared to be “innocent administrative mistakes made by volunteers.”

But Watson cited the evidence presented so far in his letter denying Gonzales public financing.

“The contrast between signatures for the same voters on those documents further prevent certification at this time. The public is not served if the Clerk’s Office certifies that public funds should be distributed in these circumstances,” Watson wrote.

Watson has referred the $5 contribution at the heart of the first ethics complaint to City Attorney Esteban Aguilar for investigation and is also requesting that the city’s Office of Inspector General look into the ethical allegations against the Gonzales campaign.

Gonzales’ campaign is accusing the clerk of trying to “silence the political opposition.”

“What this is really about is that Tim Keller knows that he will lose if voters are able to hear from both campaigns,” a Gonzales representative said in an email.

Keller in a statement said the evidence shows Gonzales’ campaign “engaged in intentional and widespread fraud” through forging voter signatures.

“As the former State Auditor, where we investigated and uncovered cases of fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars, I know a scam when I see it,” Keller said.

A Gonzales representative reiterated Friday that Gonzales submitted hundreds more $5 contributions than necessary to qualify for public financing, and the complaint involves what it deemed a “small handful of alleged invalid” contributions.

But Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin said Friday that Gonzales’ campaign did not make the kind of simple mistakes often made in the process – such as submitting contributions from people who live outside a specific area.

“This is deliberate, this is systemic, this is widespread,” she said.

Both ethics complaints are still pending before the City’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices. The first complaint is scheduled for a hearing on July 16 and the forgery complaint is scheduled for a hearing on July 22.

The board has the authority to levy fines, issue written findings of censure and, when applicable, refer the matter to the Secretary of State and/or the State Ethics Commission.

Keller himself faced ethics complaints during his 2017 mayoral run. The city’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices found that he violated both the City Charter’s Elections Code and Albuquerque’s Open and Ethical Elections Code in how he reported in-kind donations but determined he had not done so intentionally. He was not fined or reprimanded.

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