May 23, 2022


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Sheriff seeks high court ruling on public financing

Bernalillo Sheriff Manny Gonzales, left, greets supporters outside of City Hall in Downtown Albuquerque Wednesday morning after a hearing in the City Council chambers. John and Bonnie Hughes are supporters of the sheriff and were present along with about a dozen other supporters. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County Sheriff and Albuquerque mayoral candidate Manuel Gonzales is asking the state Supreme Court to intervene in his nearly two-month battle over public campaign financing.

In a petition filed by his attorneys Wednesday, Gonzales asked that the New Mexico Supreme Court order that he get a taxpayer-funded pot worth over $600,000 to power his campaign.

His attorneys filed the petition at 9:30 a.m. – at the same time Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson was conducting a related hearing on the Gonzales case at City Hall. It was a hearing that one Gonzales attorney derided as “a farce.”

Gonzales’ petition named as respondents both Watson – who on July 9 rejected Gonzales’ application for the money by saying he violated campaign financing rules – and 1st Judicial District Judge Bryan Biedscheid. Biedscheid ruled Friday that Watson had denied Gonzales due process in his July decision but sent the matter back to Watson.

Gonzales’ petition for “writ of superintending control” asks the Supreme Court to take up the case and order the District Court to reverse Watson’s decision “for real this time” and order either Biedscheid or Watson to certify Gonzales for the money. It asks the court to hear oral arguments in the case.

The Supreme Court has not taken any action on the petition.

The petition makes the Gonzales campaign’s recurring argument that Watson – a clerk appointed by incumbent Mayor Tim Keller – cannot be neutral when making consequential decisions about Gonzales’ campaign because Watson’s own term in office is tied to the mayor who appointed him.

“A reversal of the Clerk’s decision does not by a long shot assure Sheriff Gonzales’s victory come November, but merely a fair race, in which the thumb of the incumbent-candidate’s government is only allowed to press moderately on the scale,” says the petition, filed by Gonzales’ attorneys, Carter Harrison and Daniel Gallegos.

Biedscheid last week kicked the public financing decision back to Watson. He empowered the clerk to still deny Gonzales the money on the grounds he broke the rules but only after Watson determined that Gonzales had a chance to answer the claims. Without that, he ordered that Watson had to release the money to the sheriff.

In an attempt to satisfy Biedscheid’s order, Watson on Wednesday held a special hearing at City Hall, allowing Gonzales to answer several concerns. As some Gonzales supporters gathered outside the building, the sheriff’s attorney contended repeatedly during the proceeding that it was a meaningless “sham” held by a biased decision-maker.

In denying Gonzales public money in July, Watson cited evidence presented with two ethics complaints Keller’s election campaign filed against the sheriff. They alleged Gonzales and his team submitted fraudulent and forged material while attempting to qualify for public financing.

Gonzales’ campaign has since acknowledged some likely forgery. In addition, a city Inspector General’s Office investigation found problems with some Gonzales documentation, and the city’s Board of Ethics last week determined Gonzales had violated the city’s Open and Ethical Elections Code and fined him $500.

But Gallegos, Gonzales’ attorney, on Wednesday questioned Watson’s use of the more recent developments in re-making a decision he initially issued July 9 and whether Watson needs to do the same for Keller, who received over $600,000 in public campaign financing but is also the subject of a complaint pending before the Ethics Board.

With the sheriff seated quietly by his side, Gallegos repeatedly contended that Watson is biased and wedded to his original decision against Gonzales.

“We think it incredibly unlikely that the clerk will reverse himself at this stage, (though) stranger things have happened,” Gallegos said. “It’s abundantly clear this hearing was designed to pay lip service to Judge Biedscheid’s ruling and to the Constitution.”

Watson said in a statement after the hearing that he is following the judge’s ruling:

“Last week, (Biedscheid) confirmed the City Clerk’s authority over certifying candidates for public financing. Following today’s hearing, which was in full compliance with the Judge’s order, the Clerk will issue a determination no later than 10 a.m. Thursday, September 2, 2021.”