Judge reverses decision to deny Gonzales funds

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales waits for opening arguments to begin in his Ethics Board Case on Friday. (Mike Sandoval/ for the Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A state district judge on Friday reversed the Albuquerque city clerk’s decision to deny Sheriff Manuel Gonzales over $600,000 in public financing for his mayoral campaign, citing a lack of due process.

But that does not necessarily mean Gonzales will get the money, as the matter now returns to Clerk Ethan Watson.

Judge Bryan Biedscheid of the 1st Judicial District said during a virtual hearing Friday that Watson could still ultimately deny Gonzales the money. In order to do so, however, he would need to either determine that Gonzales has been found to have violated regulations or make the finding himself after a new process he must establish and carry out by next week that grants Gonzales due process. The judge stressed that Gonzales has to be given the opportunity to answer the allegations against him.

“If the clerk does not find that Sheriff Gonzales has been found to have committed the (violations he is accused of) in a proceeding that afforded him due process or does not elect to set forth a proceeding to provide that due process on the timeframe I just stated, then the clerk shall certify Sheriff Gonzales to receive public financing,” the judge said.

Biedscheid gave Watson until 5 p.m. Monday to decide which course to take.

Watson did not say Friday what he would do.

“We appreciate the court’s ruling and the procedural guidance offered. We are deciding the steps forward for next week,” the clerk said in a written statement Friday evening.

Gonzales’ campaign manager said Watson should do the “right thing” and immediately release funding to the sheriff.

“The Clerk has illegally delayed our funding for almost two months, essentially silencing our campaign and denying voters the right to hear from both candidates,” campaign manager Shannan Calland said in a statement.

Biedscheid’s ruling came just hours after a separate proceeding before the city of Albuquerque’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices that did not go Gonzales’ way. The Ethics Board ruled unanimously to fine Gonzales $500 for violating rules in his public financing qualifying bid.

It is not yet clear how that ruling may come into play next week; Watson did not answer a Journal question about whether he believed the Ethics Board’s decision – rendered after an hourslong hearing that included Gonzales’ own testimony – met Biedscheid’s requirement that Gonzales have due process.

Biedscheid’s ruling followed seven weeks of legal wrangling over whether Watson acted properly in rejecting Gonzales’ application for the public money.

Watson notified Gonzales of his decision in a July 9 letter. As grounds, the clerk referenced evidence included with two ethics complaints Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign manager had filed against Gonzales. Each alleged his campaign committed fraud while trying to earn the public money – specifically involving “qualifying contributions.”

Mayoral candidates only get public campaign financing after proving they have sufficient community support. That requires collecting $5 qualifying contributions from 1% of all registered city voters, or 3,779 people.

One ethics complaint alleged that Gonzales personally told a voter that his campaign would cover the voter’s $5 contribution, which is against the rules; the Ethics Board on Friday decided in that case Gonzales had committed a violation.

The second ethics complaint – still pending before the Ethics Board – challenged the legitimacy of the voter signatures on the $5 receipts that Gonzales submitted to qualify – several tied to women with central roles in the sheriff’s campaign. Gonzales’ team subsequently acknowledged some of them were forged.

To reject Gonzales’ public financing application, Watson cited a rule that prohibits the clerk from certifying a candidate for public financing if he determines the candidate “has been found” to have turned in fraudulent or falsified documents that the candidate knew about or should have known about.

Gonzales’ attorney argued in Friday’s court hearing that the passive language of “has been found” implies that someone other than the clerk is responsible for making those findings, such as the city’s Board of Ethics, which had not yet heard the case at the time. Attorney Carter B. Harrison also contended that Watson denied Gonzales procedural due process, having made his decision without first giving Gonzales a chance to address the evidence.

Since the city has an option to revoke public campaign financing, Harrison said Watson could have distributed the money to Gonzales while the case underwent additional review.

“This isn’t permanent. … The money can still be revoked on the back end. It will just be the sheriff is able to run a campaign in the mean time. We don’t just put one campaign on ice and not the other indefinitely while a set of findings are made,” Harrison said.

On the same day Watson rejected Gonzales’ bid, he certified Keller had qualified for the public financing. Keller received the money more than a month ago.

An attorney for the clerk’s office countered that the clerk is the only party with authority to certify or not certify candidates for public financing, and that the sheriff had his chance to make his case in the process that followed Watson’s letter. That included an all-day hearing with an administrative hearing officer within a week of Watson’s decision – the hearing officer ultimately upheld Watson’s decision – and Gonzales’ subsequent appeal in state court.

But Biedscheid said Gonzales had not received the due process he should have.

“At the very least, the candidate needs to be informed of the allegations against him or her; the candidate needs to receive an adequate explanation of the evidence against him or her, and the candidate needs to have an adequate opportunity to explain his or her position,” the judge said. “The court understands none of that was afforded in this matter.”

Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin said that much has changed since Watson’s July 9 decision, including the Gonzales campaign’s forgery acknowledgment, an inspector general’s investigation that substantiated the claims that Gonzales’ campaign submitted falsified documentation, and the Ethics Board’s ruling.

“The mounting evidence against Manny Gonzales should keep $660,000 of taxpayer money from him,” Holguin said.

Ethics Board: The city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices on Friday held a hearing on the Keller campaign’s complaint that Gonzales violated city code while speaking at a Salvation Army board meeting in May by telling a voter who signed a receipt indicating he gave $5 to the sheriff’s public financing qualifying bid that the voter did not actually need to give the money.

“He said, ‘No, that’s OK, we’ll cover that,'” the voter, Dean Zantow, testified before the board, noting that Gonzales was standing next to him and looking at him at the time.

Gonzales’ attorneys contended that it was a simple miscommunication between the sheriff and Zantow and not part of a larger scheme, but Keller’s attorney Lauren Keefe called it “willful and intentional.”

The board made the unanimous decision to fine Gonzales $500.

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