The race to become Albuquerque Mayor is becoming back-and-forth exchange of allegations of fraud, forgeries and complaints over campaign finances between the two candidates for Mayor who are both ethically challenged. At stake is between $661,000 and $1,322,000 in public fiancé and taxpayer money. A review of all the pending ethics complaints and legal matters is in order.
TWO KELLER ETHICS COMPLAINTS AGAINST GONZALES
The Keller for Mayor campaign has filed two ethics complaints. They allege widespread fraud and forgery. Gonzales’ campaign is accused of forging the names of more than 140 registered voters to secure public financing or providing the .$5.00 qualifying donations.
The first ethics complaint includes a written statement from a voter who said Gonzales told him he did not have to submit a $5 contribution and that his campaign would pay. Gonzales for his part adamantly denies the allegation.
The second ethics complaint alleges Gonzales’ campaign forged voter signatures on qualifying public finance receipts. The complaint cites disparities between signatures on $5 contribution receipts and the same voters’ signatures from other places, including on nominating petitions to get Gonzales’ name on the ballot.
The Keller campaign submitted to the City Clerk 149 examples of alleged forgeries on documents submitted to the City Clerk by the Gonzales campaign. The Keller campaign also filed signed statements from upwards of 40 people contacted by a private investigator hired by Keller campaign. Most of those contacted said the signatures on Gonzales’ nominating petition was theirs and half confirmed they had contributed $5 to Gonzales’ public financing effort. Nearly all said signatures on the $5 qualifying donations were forgeries.
The Gonzales campaign denied all wrongdoing and accused the city clerk of trying to “silence the political opposition. ” The Gonzales campaign said that Gonzales submitted hundreds more $5 qualifying contributions than necessary to qualify for public financing, and the ethics complaints involve what it deemed a “small handful of alleged invalid” contributions.
The links to quoted news source material are here:
On Friday, June 16, the city of Albuquerque’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices voted to delay an evidentiary hearing on the first of the two ethics complaints lodged against Gonzales’ campaign, pending the results of an Office of Inspector General investigation the board ordered.
CITY CLERK UNILATERALLY DENIES GONZALES PUBLIC FINANCING
In a letter dated July 9, Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson notified Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ that the city was denying his campaign $661,00 in public financing for his mayoral campaign. The City Clerk cited questions about potential misconduct in the qualifying process and told Gonzales he could not confirm that Gonzales had complied with the city’s Open and Ethical Election Code and associated regulations. The Clerk also noted the 2 ethics complaints Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign filed against Gonzales.
City Clerk Watson wrote in the letter to Gonzales:
“The Office of the City Clerk has not reached this decision based on the mere fact that complaints were filed. … The decision instead is based on the conclusion that the evidence submitted to date prevents the Office from certifying that you are entitled to receive $661,309.25 from the Open and Ethical Elections Fund. The Office of the City Clerk cannot provide that certification on the record as it stands today because of the obligation all officials have to safeguard public funds.”
The Gonzales’ for Mayor campaign was quick to respond by alleging that City Clerk Watson was “coerced” by Mayor Tim Keller to deny the public financing. The Gonzales campaign said in a statement:
“For Tim Keller’s handpicked city clerk to deny our campaign public financing after citizens submitted more than enough qualifying contributions demonstrates a stunning level of arrogance and contempt for the voters of Albuquerque.”
APPEAL HEARING ON CLERK’S UNILATERAL DENIAL OF PUBLIC FINANCING TO GONZALES
On Monday, July 12, Manny Gonzales filed an appeal of the Albuquerque city clerk’s decision to deny him public financing for his mayoral campaign. The appeal was assigned to a city hearing officer for a hearing on the merits.
On Thursday July 15, the hearing was held by video conference hearing with the hearing lasting seven hours. Upwards of 100 people viewed the proceeding presided over by City Hearing Officer Ripley Harwood who appeared dressed in a T-shirt from a boatyard in the state of Main.
At the center of the clerk’s denying public finance is a regulatory provision that prevents the city clerk from certifying a candidate for public financing who have been found to have submitted fraudulent or falsified qualifying contributions that the candidate “knew or should have known about”. Gonzales’ denied the allegation he was directly involved with the forgeries, said he was unaware of the forgeries until the city clerk notified him but Gonzales acknowledged that the forgery claims were likely true.
Gonzales’ attorney Carter B. Harrison IV argued that City Clerk Ethan Watson acted improperly by unilaterally denying Manny Gonzales the public financing he had qualified for by gathering the required number of $5.00 donations. Harrison argued City Clerk Watson failed to ask the sheriff to respond to the allegations before making his decision to deny public finance and that Watson is not impartial because he was appointed City Clerk by Mayor Keller and if Keller loses to Gonzales, Watson will also be out of a job. It was also argued that Watson made no specific findings as required by the rules and regulations to deny certification making the denial defective.
Sheriff Gonzales for his part testified that he relied on campaign staff and played no role in ensuring the propriety of the manner in collecting the $5 qualifying donation documentations and testified:
“I have no supervision responsibility. … I’m the candidate. There’s volunteers and there’s paid staff and those people have their roles.”
During his testimony, City Clerk Ethan Watson cited documents provided with two ethics complaints Mayor Tim Keller’s reelection campaign filed against Gonzales. Those complaints alleged fraud by the Sheriff Gonzales personally and also forgery of signatures by campaign representatives during the public financing qualifying process.
Under cross examination, Watson admitted he did not contact any potential witnesses to corroborate the allegations fraud that were being made believing his own personal review and comparing signatures revealed forgery. The evidence included a signed statement from one of the voters involved and numerous examples of potential forgeries.
On June 18, the City Clerk office posted on the city web site it had reviewed and verified that Gonzales submitted more than the required 3,000 signatures and more than the 3,771 qualifying donations. At issue is whether the City Clerk has the authority to deny public financing after the City Clerk found and posted that enough $5 donations were submitted ostensibly without fraud nor forgeries and before there is a decision made by the City Board of Elections and Campaign Practices as to any fraud.
During the appeal hearing, Gonzalez’s lawyer Harrison acknowledged that some of the signatures for the $5 qualifying donations appear to be forged, but if the City Clerk threw out the forged signatures, Gonzalez would still have enough $5 qualifying contributions.
Attorney Harrison argued forcefully that withholding the public finance would disenfranchise the 3,771 contributors who did in fact make the donations and that were certified by the clerk’s office. Harrison told the hearing officer:
“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.”
Harrison also got combative with City Clerk and asked him:
“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?”
City Clerk Watson responded to the question:
“No, I think the public would care about how he manages his agents.”
After seven hours of back and forth between the parties, the hearing officer gave both sides have until the end of the day of Friday, July 16 to submit closing written arguments. The hearing officer has three business days to make a decision or July 20. If either side is unhappy, they can file an appeal in district court.
OBSCENE DISRUPTION AND BREACH OF JUDICIAL DECORUM
The video conference call was disrupted at least 3 times by people who were supposed to be only observers but were hell bent on disrupting the process. Once was when a flying drone with about a 12-inch dildo hanging from it appeared on the screen while the Sheriff was testifying and he was taunted. Another time was when a man appeared on the entire screen interfering with the hearing. A third time was when an unsolicited string of questions from a viewer broke into the testimony of Sheriff Gonzales interrupting people’s train of thought.
The links to related news coverage are here:
ETHICS COMPLAINT FILED AGAINST KELLER CAMPAIGN
On July 15, an ethics complaint was filed alleging that the president of the city firefighters’ union fraudulently helped Mayor Tim Keller qualify for public campaign financing. Included in the complaint is an affidavit signed by Albuquerque firefighter Shawn McDonald contending the union leader asked firefighters to sign $5 donation cards on Keller’s behalf and that he told them that he’d cover the required $5 donation. These are identical allegations filed in a complaint against Manny Gonzales.
The complaint against the Keller campaign was filed by Jason Katz who is the chairman of the Retired Law Enforcement Officers Measure Finance Committee which is promoting Gonzales for Mayor. Katz had this to say in a news release:
“As a retired law enforcement officer, I know it is incumbent to everyone that the law has to be applied to everyone equally. Not doing so destroys the entire system. In a time when the political system seems to be one of the least trusted institutions around, we need to make sure the rules and laws are applied evenly regardless of affiliation.”
“The City Clerk must maintain consistency and apply his recently applied reasoning to the Keller campaign. In addition to the new credible and fraudulent revelations, Mayor Keller and his campaign have a history of this behavior when the City Ethics Board ruled unanimously that he violated the City Charter’s Open and Ethical Elections Code when he ran for mayor in 2017. If the City Clerk is to remain fair and impartial, he needs to apply the same reasoning to revoke the Keller campaign of its public funding as he did to Sheriff Gonzales.”
“The firefighter spoke up and told everyone at the meeting that ‘You’re not allowed to do that.’ As a result of this fraud perpetrated by a City of Albuquerque employee and union boss working for Tim Keller’s campaign on City time, soliciting other city employees on City time and property, the Retired Law Enforcement Officers PAC has filed a formal complaint against Tim Keller’s campaign. The complaint requests that Tim Keller appointee Ethan Watson, the City Clerk, revoke Tim Keller’s public financing for the same reasoning he used to revoke Sheriff Gonzales’ public financing.”
According to the “Declaration of Shawn McDonald” and filed with the Katz’s ethics complaint, on June 1 McDonald’s fire station received a visit from the Justin Cheney the President of the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Local 244. The affidavit alleges that firefighters were asked by the Fire Union President Cheney to sign Keller’s $5 donation receipts.
When Cheney was asked about making the $5 donations by a firefighter, Cheney allegedly told the firefighters:
“I got that. Don’t worry about it. It’s too hard for me to go around and ask people to sign this and donate the five dollars. I only have three books. It’s a hundred and fifty bucks, and I am going to cover it for all the guys who want to sign it.”
McDonald claims he spoke up and said “You’re not allowed to do that.” According to the affidavit, the room went silent and then the members continued to review the donation cards.
The link to the complaint and the affidavit is here:
Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin called the ethics complaint “a stunt” and said:
“It’s theatrics. … There’s no equivalency between the widespread fraud and admitted forgery by Manny Gonzales’ campaign and our campaign. There’s no evidence and there’s no merit to it.”
Links to related news sources are here:
GONZALES FILES FINANCING LAWSUIT AGAINST KELLER CAMPAIGN
On Thursday, July 15, Manny Gonzales along with 3 of his supporters filed in state District Court a lawsuit seeking certification as a class action representing all voters who made $5 qualifying contributions to help the sheriff in his application for over $661,000 in taxpayer money.
The civil complaint makes identical arguments and allegations presented during the July 15 administrative appeal hearing over Clerk Ethan Watson’s rejection of Gonzales’ public financing application. The suit contends Manny Gonzales had sufficient voter support to qualify for public financing, even when the forged paperwork is excluded.
The civil complaint alleges in part:
“In any large-scale [qualifying donation] or signature-collection operation, it unfortunately sometimes happens that a small number of overzealous or dumb campaign workers take it upon themselves to cut unacceptable corners by forging names … The Court must intercede to prevent this election from being taken from the voters, in plain view of the voters.”
Gonzales’ attorney, Carter B. Harrison IV, argued in the June 15 hearing that City Clerk Watson denied Gonzales due process of law saying as a Keller appointee, Watson is not neutral. He also said Watson did not ask Gonzales to address the evidence before he rendered his decision to deny public financing and failed to make appropriate findings in support of his denying Gonzales public financing.
ETHICALLY CHALLENGE KELLER
Four years ago when then New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller ran his successful campaign for Mayor, he was the only candidate out of 8 candidates to qualify for public fiancé. Keller had two separate ethics charges filed against him.
One complaint filed against Tim Keller’s campaign involved the allegation that “cash donations” for political consulting were reported as “in-kind” donations. The Election Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices ruled that the cash contributions were in fact an ethical violation. Ultimately, Keller was found guilty by a unanimous vote of the City Board of Ethics. Rules and Regulations and he was not penalized before or after the complaint was formally heard.
A link to a related news article is here:
“Ethics board: Keller violated rule with ‘in-kind’ donations, NM Political Report, November 13, 2017”
A second more serious complaint file in 2017 against the Keller campaign was that the Keller Campaign for Mayor committee was coordinating their campaign and expenditures with ABQ Forward Together. Neri Holguin, Keller’s 2021 campaign manager was the chairperson “ABQ Forward Together”, the progressive measured finance committee that was formed specifically to raise money to promote progressive Tim Keller for Mayor in 2017. “ABQ Forward Together” raised over $663,000 for Keller’s 2017 bid for Mayor as Keller qualified for public financing and given $340,000 for his 2017 campaign for Mayor.
On June 7, 2021 it was reported the City Council voted to approve the sale of the historic Rosenwald Building for $360,000 in a “private bid” to build condos. The sale of the building was negotiated by the Keller Administration and presented to the council for approval at the request of Mayor Tim Keller. In 2009, the city had purchased the historic 42,000-square-foot building for $1.7 million. The city sold the Rosenwald Building to someone who made a $50,000 donation to Mayor Keller’s charitable foundation and $15,000 in donations to the measured finance committee promoting Keller for a second term. The sale also includes a 14-year lease by the city of 1,100 square feet for an APD police substation.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
MAKING A MOCKERY OF THE PROCESS
It is extremely difficult to take the city’s “quasi-judicial” hearing on the Gonzales appeal seriously when the hearing officer announces that he is conducting the hearing, dressed in a T-shirt, from a boatyard in the state of Main. The hearing officer also admitted he had not reviewed all the documents submitted before the hearing.
Making a total mockery of the entire hearing was when the hearing officer was unable to do anything when a flying drone with about a 12-inch dildo hanging from it appeared on the video conference screen and then an unsolicited string of questions from a viewer breaks into the testimony of an elected official.
If the city wants city hearing officers to command respect and be taken seriously by the general public, the City Attorney and the CAO need to have a talk with all the hearing officers about judicial decorum.
BOTH CANDIDATES ULTIMATELY LOOSE
The back-and-forth exchange between the two candidates for Mayor who are both ethically challenged over campaign finances is pathetic as it gets. Ultimately, it’s the voter’s confidence that will be destroyed in a public finance system as well as between $661,000 to $1,322,000 to be used to trash each other.
Mayor Keller is a former State Auditor that claims he fought “waste, fraud and abuse” yet was found to have violated the ethics campaign rules 4 years ago and signs off on a highly questionable sale of city property to supporters of his re-election campaign.
Manny Gonzales is a career law enforcement officer who knows forgery is a 4th degree felony with his campaign admitting they have relied on forgeries with the Sheriff proclaiming he was not responsible for his campaign volunteers conduct, yet he designated them with authority to interact with the City Clerk’s office.
The election will proceed and there will be only one winner. It is more likely than not that after the type of campaigns Tim Keller and Manny Gonzales are running against each other their reputations will be so tarnished as to end their political careers, which is a good thing considering their lack of ethics.