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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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Sheriff Manny Gonzales’ campaign appeal to overturn Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson’s decision to deny the campaign over $660,000 in public financing has officially been denied by City Hearing Officer Ripley Harwood. In his official ruling, Harwood cited examples of widespread forgery committed by the Gonzales campaign and that the City Clerk acted properly.

The “basis for my ruling is the fact that the candidate admitted that many of the qualifying contribution forms submitted to the City were forgeries,” Harwood said.

In Thursday’s hearing, the Gonzales campaign argued, even after admitting to misconduct and forgeries by key members of the campaign, that the majority of the signatures were valid and that only a few accounts of forgery should not disqualify them from public financing.

Harwood ruled otherwise, viewing any evidence of misconduct or forgery as a dangerous precedent for future campaigns in Albuquerque. “I reject the argument that ‘this happens in every campaign.’ It should not happen in any campaign and I reject the corollary notion that some level of fraud and falsification is tolerable or ok,” Harwood said.

Harwood also defended the City Clerk’s decision to deny Gonzales public financing based on evidence of forgery and widespread misconduct. “In my view, the Clerk has the right and the duty to deny participating candidate certification whenever fraud or falsification is discovered,” Harwood said.

The Gonzales campaign accused City Clerk Ethan Watson’s decision to be motivated by his position’s relationship to the mayor. However, despite the city clerk being appointed by the mayor, the candidate also has to be confirmed by City Council. “I reject the argument that the clerk had any ulterior motive for the denial,” Harwood said. Harwood cited several reasons why Watson’s position had no influence his decision to deny the Gonzales campaign public financing. Harwood noted that “the Clerk’s job does not terminate were Mayor Keller not to win reelection.” The Clerk can only be removed from his position for just cause.

Harwood said that the evidence from the Salvation Army meeting factored into his decision to deny the Gonzales campaign public financing. From the evidence presented, Harwood ruled that since the Sheriff was directly involved in the incident, that there was evidence that the Sheriff was aware of fraud and falsification.

Due to the hyperpartisan nature of the hearing, Harwood addressed any concerns of bias in his ruling. The position of City Hearing Officer is contracted out to someone that can provide an unbiased and neutral forum with appeals involving the city. He noted in his official ruling that his law practice is not dependent on the city. He also emphasized that his contract with the city is set to expire in August and that he has no vested interest in the city’s current administration.

In an official statement, the Keller campaign celebrated the decision by Harwood. “We applaud today’s ruling by the City’s Hearing Officer and believe due process was followed and justice was served. The ruling shows that no one, not even the Sheriff, is above the law. When laws are broken, there must be consequences. It’s time for the Gonzales campaign and the PACs supporting him to move on from trying to sue to restore his public funding.”

Gonzales still has a series of hearings before the city’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices to determine his knowledge of the admitted forgery. The next hearing is scheduled for August 27.

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