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Gonzales backer alleges fraud in Keller’s bid for public financing

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A supporter of Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ bid for mayor hit back Thursday, filing an ethics complaint alleging that the president of the city firefighters’ union fraudulently helped Mayor Tim Keller qualify for public campaign financing.

The complaint contains an affidavit signed by Albuquerque firefighter Shawn McDonald contending the union leader asked firefighters to sign $5 donation cards on Keller’s behalf and that he told them that he’d cover the required $5 donation, a violation of city law. Justin Cheney, president of the firefighters union, didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the allegation.

But three firefighters referenced in the complaint told the Journal they paid their own $5 donations and don’t recall Cheney offering to cover the contribution, as alleged in the affidavit.

The complaint comes as Gonzales fights to have his public financing restored after City Clerk Ethan Watson denied Gonzales taxpayer funding for his campaign based in part on evidence that Gonzales’ campaign had engaged in fraud. The Gonzales campaign on Wednesday acknowledged that many of the qualifying-contribution receipts identified in an ethics complaint filed by the Keller campaign against the sheriff appear to have been signed by someone other than the voter.

The complaint against the Keller campaign was filed by Jason Katz. Katz is chairman of the Retired Law Enforcement Officers Measure Finance Committee, which is backing Gonzales in his mayoral run.

“If the city clerk is to remain fair and impartial, he needs to apply the same reasoning to revoke the Keller campaign of its public funding as he did to Sheriff Gonzales,” Katz said in a news release.

Neri Holguin, manager of the Keller campaign, called the allegations “a stunt” that lacks the evidence of the earlier ethics complaints filed against Gonzales by Keller’s campaign.

“It’s theatrics,” Holguin said Thursday. “There’s no equivalency between the widespread fraud and admitted forgery by Manny Gonzales’ campaign and our campaign. There’s no evidence and there’s no merit to it.”

In the affidavit filed with Katz’s complaint, McDonald – the Albuquerque firefighter – alleges that his fire station received a visit June 1 from the president of the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Local 244. The affidavit doesn’t name the union president, but accompanying receipts for the qualifying contributions were submitted by Cheney, who is president of the local firefighters union.

Cheney allegedly asked firefighters to sign Keller’s $5 donation cards, but did not require them to pay the $5 donation.

McDonald contends that he told everyone present that they had to pay their own $5 donation.

“The room went silent for a bit, but members then continued to review the donation cards,” the affidavit states.

McDonald declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday.

The complaint includes photocopies of 26 contribution receipts listing the names and signatures of firefighters.

But three of those firefighters said Thursday they paid a $5 donation to Keller’s campaign themselves.

Firefighters Alejandro Marrufo, Matthew Breeswine and Zack Nichols all said in phone interviews that they don’t recall Cheney telling them he would cover the $5 donation.

“I gave him $5 out of my wallet,” Marrufo said.

The complaint also contains photocopies of election nominating petitions. It identifies 27 signatures as having “fraudulent or clearly questionable authenticity.”

One person whose signature is identified in the complaint as questionable verified that she had signed the petition herself.

Leslie Rene Horvath said in a phone interview that she signed the petition June 6 at a West Side park.

Keller has faced ethics complaints in the past. 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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