Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For the second time in about two months, the Albuquerque city clerk has rejected Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ application for about $600,000 in public money to run his mayoral campaign.
Ethan Watson – whose initial denial on July 9 sparked a series of appeals, hearings and court filings – on Thursday notified Gonzales again that he would not get the taxpayer money.
In a letter to the sheriff, Watson wrote he would not certify Gonzales for the money because Gonzales violated city code and related regulations while trying to qualify for the funds.
The sheriff’s campaign manager said in a statement that Watson is biased.
“Voters should be the ones to decide elections and not unelected bureaucrats, and that’s why we have petitioned the state Supreme Court to take up this case and hope they will do so in the near future,” Shannan Calland said in a statement, referencing the sheriff’s Wednesday request for the high court to intervene.
But with the election now just two months away, Gonzales said he will be weighing whether to end his pursuit for the public money and begin seeking private campaign donations.
“I don’t have a target date (for that decision), but it will be soon,” the sheriff said Thursday.
Gonzales’ campaign has acknowledged it likely turned in some forged paperwork while pursuing the public funding, and an investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General into voter support receipts Gonzales submitted to the Clerk found problems with nearly 16% of a random sample.
In addition, the city’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices last week ruled that Gonzales had violated the city’s Open and Ethical Elections Code, which governs the city’s public campaign financing program.
Candidates for mayor can get the taxpayer-funded campaign pot only by proving they have enough community support. That requires amassing $5 “qualifying contributions” from 1% of the city’s voters. Supporters who give cash must sign a $5 contribution receipt that the campaign submits with the money to the clerk.
Last week, the city’s Board of Ethics determined that Gonzales’ campaign had violated the rules by submitting a receipt and $5 for a voter who signed a receipt, but never paid. The voter testified that he did not pay because the sheriff told him the campaign would cover the $5.
The board fined Gonzales $500 in the case, the maximum amount possible.
A separate ethics complaint alleging that Gonzales’ campaign submitted $5 receipts with forged voter signatures – several tied to women with central roles in the sheriff’s campaign – is still pending before the board.
Watson wrote Thursday that he was denying Gonzales public financing because “you, as a candidate, your campaign’s employees and the designated representatives for whom you expressly accepted responsibility, submitted materially false statements to the Clerk’s Office, submitted forged Qualifying Contribution acknowledgment forms to the Clerk’s Office to obtain public financing in your campaign, which you and your employees knew or should have known were forged, and paid for the Qualifying Contributions of purported contributors.”
The clerk rendered his decision after a hearing held Wednesday in an attempt to satisfy a state judge’s ruling that Watson had denied Gonzales due process when he first rejected Gonzales’ application.
Gonzales sat quietly during the hearing while his attorney argued that the proceeding was a “sham” and that Watson was not impartial because of his ties to Gonzales’ opponent, Mayor Tim Keller. The city clerk is appointed by the mayor with City Council consent and his term is tethered to the mayor who picked him.
“You did not admit evidence, nor did you seek to admit any evidence or documents” during the hearing, Watson wrote Thursday. “In short, given notice that the Clerk’s Office was considering denying certification, notice of the evidence and legal basis on which the Clerk’s Office proposed to deny certification, and an opportunity to respond to the allegations of fraud, you provided no response to the allegations.”
Keller’s campaign said in a statement that the Gonzales camp “needs to end the blame game.”
“Manny Gonzales committed fraud and they’ve admitted to forgery,” Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin said. “Those facts won’t change – and those are the underlying reasons he’s being denied public financing.”