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The Albuquerque city clerk’s decision to deny Sheriff Manuel Gonzales more than $600,000 in public money to fund his 2021 mayoral campaign was “proper,” an administrative hearing officer has ruled.
Ripley Harwood on Monday issued his written ruling on Gonzales’ appeal, saying the sheriff had failed to prove City Clerk Ethan Watson had acted inappropriately, and shooting down Gonzales’ arguments that the sheriff was denied due process and that Watson, appointed by Gonzales’ opponent, Mayor Tim Keller, was politically motivated.
Harwood’s ruling highlighted the Gonzales campaign’s admission that it had submitted forged documents in the public financing qualifying process, dismissing the campaign’s defense that such incidents are standard.
“I reject the argument that ‘this happens in every campaign.’ It should not happen in any campaign, and I reject the corollary notion that some level of fraud and falsification is tolerable or OK,” Harwood wrote. “In my view, the Clerk has the right and the duty to deny participating candidate certification whenever fraud or falsification is discovered, without the need to first quantify it.”
The ruling can be appealed to state District Court, which is where Gonzales plans to take it.
“We are not surprised that the hearing officer handpicked by Keller’s city clerk rubber-stamped the decision made by the city clerk. We will be appealing to district court, which is where we always believed this will ultimately be decided,” the Gonzales campaign said in an unsigned written statement to the Journal.
Gonzales’ campaign on Monday reiterated its argument that the fraudulent documents do not negate all of his support.
“The fact remains that the Gonzales campaign submitted more than enough valid contributions to qualify for public financing and denying him that funding disenfranchises those voters who made more than 4,000 valid contributions on his behalf,” the campaign statement said.
The city, meanwhile, said the ruling makes sense.
“We agree with the hearing officer that the City Clerk did not violate Candidate Gonzales’ due process rights and it was appropriate for the Clerk to deny Gonzales’ application for public financing due to his now admitted submission of fraudulent signatures,” Deputy City Attorney Paul Haidle said in a written statement.
In rejecting Gonzales’ public financing application July 9, Watson cited evidence presented as part of two ethics complaints Keller’s reelection campaign had filed against Gonzales. Both complaints involve the collection and documentation of the 3,779 $5 voter contributions mayoral candidates must amass to qualify for public financing. The contributions are required to prove the candidates have sufficient community support to warrant receiving over $600,000 in public money to run their campaigns.
One complaint alleges the sheriff himself told a voter that the voter did not need to give the $5 and that the campaign would pay for his contribution. Gonzales has denied that.
The second alleges that campaign staff — including two people high in the Gonzales operation — forged voter signatures on $5 contribution receipts submitted to the city clerk.
Watson had specifically cited a rule that prohibits the city clerk from granting public financing to candidates found to have submitted fraudulent or falsified documents when the candidate knew, or should have known, about it.
Gonzales’ campaign has since confirmed that it turned in forged documentation but argued during last week’s seven-hour hearing before Harwood that forgeries are typical in campaigns and that the sheriff was not responsible for them.
Harwood held that Gonzales should have known about it — and should have prevented it from happening.
“I endorse the view that it is the duty of candidates to manage and oversee their campaigns in a way that assures that fraud and falsifications do not occur. I would view this as a non-delegable duty even if (Gonzales) had not signed a document acknowledging responsibility for the acts of his key subordinates,” Harwood wrote.
“Failing to detect and eliminate a multitude of forged qualifying contribution forms bearing the signatures of his key subordinates constitutes failure to exercise ordinary care in the management of a campaign and meets the ‘knew or should have known’ standard …”
Harwood’s ruling did erroneously say that Watson’s job was not tied to Keller’s. Gonzales’ attorney argued Watson had that motive to deny Keller’s opponent the public campaign financing.
“The Clerk’s job does not terminate were Mayor Keller not to win reelection, so this argument is without merit,” Harwood wrote.
However, while the mayor’s city clerk appointment requires City Council consent, the City Charter says the appointment “shall be for a term that coincides and terminates with the term of the Mayor making the appointment,” though he can be terminated earlier for cause as determined by the Director of the Office of Internal Audit and Investigations.
Harwood, an attorney, presided over the appeal through an existing contract he has with the city’s Office of Administrative Hearings, a division of the City Clerk’s Office. Anticipating critics would attack him as partisan, Harwood wrote in his ruling that he has never met Keller, has “little or no interest in local politics” and that his “thriving law practice does not rise or fall on City work or contracts.”