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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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In a marathon seven-hour hearing Thursday, mayoral candidate Manny Gonzales appealed the decision by City Clerk Ethan Watson to deny the Gonzales campaign public financing because of fraud and forgery in submissions.

Gonzales appeared before City Hearing Officer Ripley Harwood to appeal the decision denying him over $600,000 in public financing from the city’s election fund. Gonzales was represented by his attorney, Carter Harris, who argued that Watson’s decision lacked sufficient evidence of fraudulent voter signatures, even though the Gonzales campaign has now admitted that “many” of the qualifying contributions that the Keller campaign presented in their complaint do contain evidence of forgery. Along with a lack of evidence, Harrison also accused Watson’s decision to be motivated by his relationship with Mayor Tim Keller. Watson was nominated to the position by Keller in March 2020, but he was confirmed with a unanimous vote by the city council.

“The city clerk is trying to disenfranchise a large number of voters,” Harrison declared. Harrison argued that, even if the 189 contested submissions were disregarded, Gonzales still presented enough contributions from uncontested voters to qualify. As of July 14, Gonzales had 4,182 campaign contributions accepted by the city, surpassing the minimum of 3,779 needed for public financing by 403 contributions. 

Then things got complicated. Harrison acknowledged that there were examples of clear forgery presented and that the Gonzales campaign is investigating the matter. Despite acknowledging fraud, Harrison accused the city clerk of not having the expertise to verify that the forged signatures were indeed forged.

Gonzales himself testified about the allegations made against him by Dean Zantow regarding whether he made a donation on Zantow’s behalf. That incident is also the subject of an ethics complaint before the city’s Ethics Board on Friday. Zantow denied that he ever made a $5 contribution to the Gonzales campaign, despite a donation form being signed by him. Gonzales and Zantow allegedly had a conversation at a Salvation Army event where Gonzales spoke. Zantow provided Gonzales his signature for the petition at the event but never made a qualified contribution. He has accused Gonzales of saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll take of it,” referring to the Gonzales campaign contributing on his behalf. 

Gonzales denied any such interaction and even had difficulty recalling his interaction with Zantow.

The serious nature of the hearing was interrupted with a cameo Zoom appearance by the now-infamous Dongcopter505, which is a flying drone with a sex toy attached. The drone made its first appearance at a Gonzales campaign event in June. The caller flying the drown chanted “Oh Manny” several times before being eventually booted from the Zoom meeting.

Back on track, Watson told the hearing officer that he believes the two women who submitted the forged signatures worked directly for Gonzales. The women in question were Michelle Martinez and Megan McMillan, whom Gonzales identified as core members of the campaign. 

Hearing Officer Ripley Harwood has until Tuesday, July 20, to decide if the City Clerk’s denial of public financing will stand.

The city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices will also hold hearings on ethics complaints against Gonzales on Friday, July 16 and July 22. If Gonzales is found guilty by the board, they can impose a fine or refer to the matters concerning Gonzales to law enforcement.

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