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Gonzales team argues clerk acted improperly

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ fight for $600,000-plus in public campaign funding for his mayoral bid is now in the hands of a hearing officer after a technical, all-day proceeding Thursday during which his attorney argued that withholding the money would disenfranchise thousands of Albuquerque voters.

Hearing officer Ripley Harwood, who presided over Thursday’s hearing, has until Tuesday to decide if Gonzales’ campaign proved that City Clerk Ethan Watson improperly denied the sheriff the money.

In making his decision last week, Watson cited documents provided with two ethics complaints Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign filed against Gonzales. They alleged fraud by the sheriff personally and forgery by campaign representatives during the public financing qualifying process – specifically in the required collection of $5 contributions from voters. To prove they have sufficient community support, mayoral candidates need 3,779 such contributions to get over $600,000 in public campaign financing.

In a seven-hour video conference hearing marked by several interruptions – including a flying sex toy-like apparatus appearing on screen and an unsolicited string of questions from a viewer – Gonzales’ attorney Carter B. Harrison IV argued that Watson did not ask the sheriff to address the allegations before making his decision and that Watson is not impartial.

Watson confirmed he did not contact any potential witnesses to corroborate the allegations, noting that the evidence he saw included a signed statement from one of the voters involved and numerous examples of potential forgeries.

Gonzales’ campaign has denied the allegation directly involving the sheriff but acknowledged that the forgery claims appear to be true. However, Harrison argued the sheriff surpassed the qualifying threshold even if all $5 contributions Keller’s campaign questioned were disregarded.

“The fact is the voters still overwhelmingly made the decision to give Sheriff Gonzales public financing and that shouldn’t be undone by … an unelected bureaucrat who is appointed by the sheriff’s opponent,” said Harrison, who repeatedly emphasized that Watson’s job is tied to Keller’s.

Keller – whom Watson did certify for public campaign financing – appointed Watson as city clerk with the City Council’s unanimous consent. But the clerk’s term only lasts as long as the mayor who appointed him or her, according to the city charter.

Watson, an attorney, said he did not consider that in his decision, saying if his clerk’s job ends, “I could go back to practicing law.”

Central to the clerk’s case is a regulatory provision stopping him from certifying a candidate for public financing who was found to have submitted fraudulent or falsified qualifying contributions that the candidate knew about or should have known about.

The sheriff testified that he relied on campaign staff and played no role in ensuring the correctness of the $5 documentation.

“I have no supervision responsibility,” Gonzales said. “I’m the candidate. There’s volunteers and there’s paid staff and those people have their roles.”

But Watson and attorneys representing the city noted many of the allegedly forged documents were signed by two women with central roles in the campaign: Megan McMillan and Michele Martinez. In April, Gonzales signed a statement designating McMillan and Martinez among three campaign representatives with authority to interface with the Clerk’s Office regarding his candidacy.

“I am fully responsible for the statements made and materials submitted by these representatives on behalf of my campaign,” the statement reads.

Watson said those women’s specific involvement in the alleged forgeries was one of his concerns in denying Gonzales public funding.

Harrison contended that the community does not care.

“You understand why the public, who is who we’re concerned with here under our democratic system, would care about what Manny Gonzales – the guy who’s going to be the office-holder – does and not what his designated representative does? You can see why that would be the line, right?” Harrison asked.

“No,” Watson responded. “No, I think the public would care about how he manages his agents.”

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