Editorial: ABQ’s election code clear; falsehoods mean no public financing

When you get past the political posturing, the finger-pointing and the campaign rhetoric, it should come down to the law. If Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales – or his opponent Mayor Tim Keller for that matter – violated the 2021 Regulations of the Albuquerque City Clerk for the Open and Ethical Elections Code, then they should not get public financing for their mayoral campaign.

Even if the guy making the call technically works for one of the candidates.

We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money, which should not be handed out to a campaign when there is wrongdoing in the signature/collection process – regardless of how many $5 contributions it receives.

And so far the Keller campaign has laid out pretty convincing violations of Section 15 (a) iii and v by the Gonzales campaign. (The Gonzales campaign has made accusations against the Keller campaign but has yet to file any formal complaints. To be clear, if the Gonzales campaign provides credible evidence of falsified or fraudulent forms by the Keller campaign, he should not receive any public financing either.)

Those sections of the code say the city clerk shall determine whether the candidate has “been found to have made a materially false statement in a report … submitted to the City Clerk” and “been found to have submitted any fraudulent Qualifying Contributions or any falsified acknowledgement forms for Qualifying Contributions or Seed Money Contributions.”

And section 15 (b) states clearly “if the Clerk makes any of the findings above, the Clerk shall not certify the Applicant Candidate as a Participating Candidate.”

City Clerk Ethan Watson told the Gonzales campaign he won’t approve public financing, setting out in a letter enough evidence had been submitted to give him concerns about certification.

The Gonzales camp predictably lashed back at Watson, an appointee of Mayor Tim Keller, who is seeking re-election and whose campaign no doubt would benefit from his high-profile opponent being disqualified for $660,000 in public financing. “For Tim Keller’s hand-picked 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 Monday it filed an appeal that will be heard by a city hearing officer.

Both campaigns had more than 4,100 verified signatures with $5 contributions – more than the 3,779 or 1% of city voters required. And that’s after 591 signatures for Gonzales and 338 for Keller were rejected by the Clerk’s Office.

But Keller’s campaign has made public some disturbing examples of cases that appear to go beyond simple administrative errors and has filed two complaints with the City Ethics Board, which has scheduled hearings. The first includes a written statement from a voter who said Gonzales told him he didn’t have to submit the required $5 contribution, the campaign would cover it. The second alleges forged voter signatures – including one from a 92-year-old woman whose daughter says she couldn’t have signed as she had a major heart attack the week before.

The campaign has submitted about 40 affidavits collected by a private investigator that reflect a mix of people who said they hadn’t made contributions or said they kicked in the money but hadn’t signed. None of this should be taken lightly. While the Gonzales campaign has said there were administrative errors, the Keller campaign alleges “intentional and widespread fraud.”

And that’s exactly why we have a City Clerk to determine whether a candidate qualifies to be on the ballot or receive public financing and why we have a City Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices, which can levy fines, issue written findings of censure and, where applicable, refer the matter to the Secretary of State or State Ethics Commission.

And that’s why we have campaigns where voters can weigh charges of ethical violations – Keller had his own problems four years ago reporting over-the-limit cash contributions as in-kind. The Ethics Board ruled his misconduct was unintentional, and he was not fined or reprimanded.

This is the first time these sections of the code have been used to deny public financing. It is beyond unfortunate it first falls on the shoulders of a political appointee to make a sweeping decision to disqualify a candidate for public financing, one who is running against his boss, no less. That will feed the fires of cynicism in the process, regardless of evidence of potential fraud.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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