Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A city board slapped Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales with a $2,000 fine and a public reprimand Friday, finding that his mayoral campaign submitted 16 forged documents in his bid for public financing.
The 5-0 finding by the city Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices punctuates an unsuccessful monthslong quest by Gonzales to obtain more than $600,000 in public campaign financing in his race against Mayor Tim Keller and Eddy Aragon.
That effort foundered on a pair of ethics complaints filed against Gonzales by Keller’s campaign manager, Neri Holguin, that centered on the $5 “qualifying contributions” candidates must collect from city voters to qualify for public financing.
“The fact that they issued a reprimand is significant,” said Lauren Keefe, Holguin’s attorney. Though lacking practical consequences, a reprimand is a recognition that the board found evidence of wrongdoing, Keefe said.
“The reprimand may be more significant than the fine,” she said. Attorneys for Gonzales stressed the finding of 16 violations is far fewer than the 176 violations alleged in the Keller campaign’s ethics complaints.
Daniel Gallegos, one of Gonzales’ attorneys, said the $2,000 fine was “probably appropriate” given that the campaign submitted forged qualifying contributions in “a few discrete instances.”
Gonzales testified on Friday that he had no knowledge of the forged signatures until after the deadline had passed to qualify for public funding.
The Gonzales campaign said in a written statement Friday that the board’s decision shows that Keller’s allegations were overblown.
“After spending months claiming ‘widespread’ fraud related to the Gonzales campaign’s $5 qualifying contributions, the Keller campaign only managed to prove 16 violations to the Board of Ethics,” the statement said.
“The Gonzales campaign submitted over 4,000 qualifying contributions, which is well over the required threshold for a candidate to qualify for public financing,” it said.
The Keller campaign said the fine and reprimand offers more evidence that the county’s top law officer “was found to have committed and orchestrated widespread fraud.”
The campaign also noted that board members limited its presentation to one hour.
“This ruling, limited by procedural constraints, represents a small fraction of the 300 plus additional forgeries estimated by the Independent Inspector General report,” the statement said.
Albuquerque’s Office of Inspector General – an accountability office that operates independent of the mayor – investigated the allegations last month, interviewing voters identified on a random sample of 239 qualifying contribution receipts submitted by the Gonzales campaign. Almost 16% in the sample told investigators they neither signed the receipt or donated $5, or that they signed the receipt but did not contribute $5.
Keefe entered into evidence 36 statements from voters who said that they had not paid the $5 qualifying contribution or signed the receipt submitted to City Clerk Ethan Watson’s office by the Gonzales campaign.
Board members did not explain why they recognized only 16 violations of the city’s ethics laws.
The board also heard from a woman who testified that her mother’s name was forged on one of the qualifying contribution receipts.
Jan Wright testified that her mother, Dorothy Wright, suffered a massive heart attack on May 25 and could not have signed the qualifying contribution receipt on June 1 – the date listed on the receipt.
“I was home with my mother all day setting up home health care for her” on June 1, Wright said. No one with the Gonzales campaign came to the house or collected $5, she testified.
Wright’s testimony prompted board members to fine Gonzales $500. The board based the remaining $1,500 fine on 15 other violations submitted as evidence during the hearing.
The Gonzales campaign representative who signed Dorothy Wright’s receipt was Megan McMillan, who Gonzales identified as a temporary campaign manager who subsequently resigned from the campaign.
McMillan was one of two campaign operatives who were subpoenaed to testify at the hearing. McMillan came to the hearing but was never called to testify.
Keefe said after the hearing that the board’s one-hour limit on her presentation left no time to call McMillan to testify.
Last week, a state judge delivered a blow by ruling that City Clerk Watson had acted appropriately in denying Gonzales taxpayer funding.
Gonzales subsequently announced that he would turn to private donors for support and abandon his quest for public campaign financing.